Thursday, November 18, 2010

Freed miners arrive in the U.S. for CNN tribute to heroes

By Michael Martinez, CNN
November 18, 2010 11:59 a.m. EST
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Miners en route for 'Heroes'
  • NEW: The miners land in Atlanta, Georgia
  • The 33 survived 69 days in a Chilean mine
  • It's their first group tour to the country since being freed last month
  • "I want to see the world," one miner says
Los Angeles, California (CNN) -- The miners who survived 69 days in a Chilean mine landed in Atlanta, Georgia, Thursday morning for their first group tour to the country since being freed last month.
Before they made their way through Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the miners signed flags. One signed "Corazon de Minero," which means heart of a miner.
The group and five of their rescuers were heading to Los Angeles to attend "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute," which will air worldwide on Thanksgiving evening, November 25.
Organizers invited them as special guests.
As miner Richard Villarroell prepared to board the plane in Santiago, Chile, on Wednesday night, the 27-year-old said he has only traveled to Argentina.
"I want to see the world," he said, smiling. "I know all of Chile, but not the rest of the world."
Chilean miners head to CNN's Heroes
Freed after 69 days underground
Villarroell, a mechanic, worked at the San Jose mine for two years. His girlfriend was pregnant while he was trapped.
Mario Sepulveda, 40, a miner who served as narrator for many videos sent to the surface, prepared to board the flight carrying a traditional broad-brimmed Chilean hat in his left hand and a suitcase in the other.
He was wearing his trademark dark glasses and a big grin.
"It's the hat of a Chilean cowboy," he said. "I am going as a representative of the Chilean people."
The miners captured the world's imagination when they survived the longest mine entrapment in history, beginning August 5.
For more than two weeks, many officials thought they were dead.
Crews made contact after a small borehole enabled communication with the men trapped 2,300 feet underground. Rescue crews encountered repeated setbacks.
At first, authorities expected the miners to be trapped until Thanksgiving or Christmas because of the difficulty of drilling a tunnel.
On their U.S. trip, the miners and rescuers will get a whirlwind tour of southern California. They'll sight-see and shop in Los Angeles and Hollywood through the weekend.
The visit is a world away from the miners' experience.
They endured such great hardship that officials became concerned about the psychological impact of being stuck underground for so long, with the haunting reality that they could die there.
NASA and Chilean navy submarine experts were consulted on how to lift their morale.
The miners said they prepared for death even as they hoped for a rescue. Some ate about a bottle cap of canned fish daily and drank mine water that they said tasted like machine oil in the days before rescuers made contact with them.
The miners and rescuers were invited by CNN to attend "Heroes," an annual program now in its fourth year that shines a light on "everyday people changing the world."
The Chileans were extended the invitation because they symbolize the resilience and endurance of the human spirit. The miners' rescue was a moment that brought the planet together.
The five rescuers represent a fraction of the hundreds of people who labored for weeks until they found a way to pull out every miner alive.
CNN Heroes received 10,000 nominations from more than 100 countries. That list was narrowed down to the Top 10 CNN Heroes.
The Hero of the Year will be revealed on the show; the public votes to select that winner.
"The heroic efforts of the rescue of these miners was one of the most unifying and inspirational events of the year," said Jim Walton, president of CNN Worldwide.
"CNN Heroes is a fitting way for CNN to honor these men and their rescuers," he said. "We hope viewers around the world will be heartened by the story of their rescue as well as the stories of this year's top 10 CNN Heroes."
The miners' imprisonment began when a ramp into the San Jose mine -- located in the Atacama region of northern Chile -- collapsed. In darkness, the men huddled in an area no larger than 165 square feet -- the equivalent of a room sized 10 feet by 16 ½ feet.
Shift foreman Luis Urzua told the men that they had a shot of surviving the catastrophe, but there was a good chance they would never again see daylight.
The men occupied themselves by voting on everything, including how food should be distributed. Majority rule prevailed -- 17 votes plus one -- but the miners often managed to find common ground and most decisions were unanimous.
Everyone had a task. No one was left alone. And they became masters of compromise and patience, even as their rations quickly began running out.
The men, later dubbed "Los 33" or "The 33" in Chile, functioned as a family. For 17 days, they were cut off from the world. But the borehole allowed food, water, clothes and letters in metal cylinders to be delivered until their October 12 rescue. Just like in life above ground, milestones came and went.
One miner, Esteban Rohas, proposed while he was trapped. Ariel Ticona's wife had a baby girl, named Esperanza or "Hope," a common first name in Spanish.

CNN's Alec Miran and Lonzo Cook contributed to this report.

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