The first details of a tense underground struggle for survival emerged Thursday, as some of the 33 rescued miners began to recount their story to a world thirsty for their stories.
On Thursday, at least two of the miners provided new details of the mine collapse and evacuation that sparked huge international interest, on a day when Chilean authorities pledged to make the country's workplaces safer.
"It was an act of God to get us out," Osman Araya said in a brief interview with TVN, the state-owned Chilean network. Richard Villaroel, the 23-year-old with a pregnant wife, told the TV network that in his worst moments, he despaired of ever seeing his family again.
At one point, the men set fire to a tire, Mr. Villaroel said, in the hope that the smoke would find its way to surface and notify those above that they were alive.
But the nadir of more than two months spent underground came soon into the long wait, after a secondary collapse destroyed hope of rescue just days after the men were initially trapped on Aug. 5.
"That's when the mine closed off completely, and I thought I would never see my wife again or my child be born," he said from the hospital in Copiapo, Chile, where he and the other miners remained Thursday afternoon.
By Thursday night, medical authorities said three men would be discharged from hospital care and returned to their families. The remainder are expected to be released by Sunday, capping more than 70 days of trauma, anxious expectation - and, finally triumph - for "Los 33."
As they go their separate ways, they have already laid plans to rejoin forces later this month, after Chilean President Sebastian Pinera challenged them to a soccer match Oct. 25 at the presidential palace, La Moneda.
"We'll make a team in La Moneda, and we'll have a game," Mr. Pinera said. "He who wins stays in La Moneda. And the other team returns to the mine. Do you accept the challenge?"
The miners, laughing, responded with an exuberant, "Yay!"
Yet if the levity was a natural response to relief following a remarkable rescue, it also came amid growing questions for the Chilean government, and how it can prevent a repeat of such an accident in a country so dependent on mining.
Mr. Pinera pledged to triple the budget for mining inspections, and said a thorough rethink of safety rules has been undertaken for all industries - including agriculture, fishing, trucking and construction.
"Never again in this country are we going to permit someone to work in such insecure conditions and such sub-human conditions," he said. "During the next few days we're going to propose a new agreement with the workers, we're going to review procedures, regulations, standards and inspections."
His own mining minister, however, pointed to the difficulties of accomplishing that task. Chile already has quite strict mine rules, but the country's thousands of smaller mines, some operated only by families, "don't respect these regulations," Laurence Golborne said.
The only way to improve safety is for miners and mine owners to be persuaded to do it on their own, he said.
The high-profile story of the miners' entrapment will, no doubt, help in that process - although it's too late to help "Los 33," who survived their ordeal in remarkably good medical condition, but who remain psychologically vulnerable.
"Their psychological state is difficult to foresee," Jorge Montes, medical vice-director of the Copiapo hospital. "They were stressed very profoundly during two months. So the lesions of that you can't see in the short term. They could all, in theory, present a [risk for]post-traumatic stress disorder."
The new celebrities got a preview Thursday of the stress that lies ahead. On their first full day of fresh air, the miners were probably the 33 most in-demand people on the planet.
A Greek mining company wants to bring them to the sunny Aegean islands, competing with rainy Chiloe in Chile's southern archipelago, whose tourism bureau wants them to stay for a week.
Soccer teams in Madrid, Manchester and Buenos Aires want them in their stadiums. Bolivia's president wants them at his palace. TV host Don Francisco wants them all on his popular Sabado Gigante show in Miami.
Hearing that miner Edison Pena jogged regularly in the tunnels below the collapsed rock, the New York City marathon invited him to participate in next month's race.
Already, there's a book deal about the rescue, a reality show about mining and a Discovery Channel special on the saga.
"I can imagine agents and other folks are already swirling around this, looking to get those stories locked up," said Clark Bunting, president and general manager of Discovery. That network's Latin American affiliate is making Rescued: The Chilean Mine Story and an Oct. 28 air date is already scheduled.
He called it uplifting how the miners created their own society underground and ran it smoothly.
Shift foreman Luis Urzua said his secret for keeping the men bonded and focused on survival was majority decision-making.
Mr. Villaroel, however, said the truth was not so simple. Some men were so despairing that they climbed into bed and would not get out.
However, once the miners realized they would be saved, they signed a "blood pact" to not reveal all that happened beneath the Atacama desert, he said.
With reports from the Guardian, Associated Press