Local Chileans cheer mine rescue

Local Chileans cheer mine rescue

CHAMPAIGN – A small Chilean flag usually hangs inside Angharad Valdivia's office at Gregory Hall, a symbol of the country she left in 1983 to attend the University of Illinois.

On Wednesday, as rescuers safely pulled out the last of 33 miners trapped underground for more than two months near Copiapo, Chile, Valdivia sported an even bigger flag.

"I've been walking around with my flag all day," said Valdivia, now head of the Department of Media and Cinema Studies. "I took it to my class, when I went to the parking meter, when I got lunch. ... It's a great story."

As coverage of the mine rescue riveted readers and viewers worldwide, Chileans took pride in the stirring conclusion to what is often is a tragic story.

"It's really emotional to see how the whole world has reacted to this tragedy and now to this happy ending," said Matias Negrete-Pincetic, a UI doctoral student in electrical engineering. "It's hard to describe by words. It's a feeling of hope in the human race."

Tears flowed as Chilean students and faculty watched the first of the miners pulled out of the ground Tuesday night.

"I started crying. I hate to say it. I'm a media scholar; I should know not to do this," Valdivia said. "Up until the very end I didn't want to wish anything. You just never know if there's going to be a disaster, or the whole thing could crumble in. When they came out, I was just so relieved. It was just wonderful. I was waving my little flag at home."

Graduate student David Rebolledo, who came to the UI in 2007, admitted he hadn't been optimistic about the miners' chances for survival until the now-famous note was found three weeks after the collapse, saying "We are all fine, all the 33." On Tuesday, he felt "joy and relief. All the country was waiting that moment."

It's been a tough year for Chile, which was hit by a catastrophic earthquake last February that killed more than 500 people. But casualties could have been much worse, said Valdivia, who visited Chile last spring with an earthquake-assessment team from the UI College of Engineering. Like other Chileans, she praised her country's engineers and planners for their work in both the earthquake and mine collapse.

Mining is the largest industry in Chile, and the government reached out to experts around the world during the crisis, Negrete-Pincetic said. It's the first time anyone has been rescued from such depths, 700 meters below the surface, he said.

"It was handled so much better than it's been handled in the United States and Wales and lots of other countries where they have mining incidents," Valdivia agreed.

Graduate student Patricio Jeraldo said both disasters showed Chileans are a "resilient people." But he and Rebolledo also said Chile has to address safety conditions at its mines.

"I cannot help but say that to have a truly happy ending, we have to first remember how this accident happened in the first place. It would be wonderful if the people responsible for this negligence are brought to justice, the miners fairly compensated, and mining safety standards properly enforced to avoid new accidents," Jeraldo said.

As they did during the earthquake and World Cup, Chileans at the UI used e-mail, texts, Facebook and Skype to stay in touch with friends and family around the world throughout the crisis. Valdivia, who originally came to the UI as a graduate student in 1983, has a cousin in Germany, a sister in Atlanta and cousins back home in Santiago, Chile.

"They're saying it's the greatest story since the landing on the moon," she said.

Negrete-Pincetic, a Fulbright scholar who came to the UI five years ago, said he's been in touch with his family back home in Santiago and "Chile is just joy now. It's a sense of unity." He's also been moved by the support he's received from colleagues at the UI.

Chilean student Daisy Huang Chang said she was proud of the miners themselves, as well as the rescue efforts.

"It showed the persistence and unity of Chilean people. It was exciting to see how the rescue process went along on the news, how people were cheering, crying and hugging," she said.

Valdivia is concerned about what might happen to the miners now given the worldwide attention.

"These are people from a remote area of the country. They're not used to what I think is going to hit them now," she said. "They're global celebrities."

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