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Chilean miner Alex Vega Salazargives a thumbs up upon exiting the Fenix capsule as the tenth miner to be brought to the surface. (RODRIGO ARANGUA/RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)
Chilean miner Alex Vega Salazargives a thumbs up upon exiting the Fenix capsule as the tenth miner to be brought to the surface. (RODRIGO ARANGUA/RODRIGO ARANGUA/AFP/Getty Images)

For the desert Chileans, mining runs in their veins Add to ...

As the last of Chile's trapped miners rose to the surface, the riotous celebration that marked an end to the riveting saga could not mask one thing: At least some of these 33 men will likely return to the kind of underground tunnels that nearly ended their lives.

The collapse of the San Jose mine, and the dramatic rescue that ensued, has driven home the dangers of a profession that, by some estimates, employs three out of four people in these barren stretches of the arid Atacama Desert. The rescue proceeded flawlessly Wednesday as, one by one, the miners were hoisted to the surface.

But as the media spotlight fell on those men who are unlikely to ever mine again - such as Mario Gomez, the 63-year-old who fell to his knees in prayer as he emerged Wednesday, or 50-old Yonni Barrios, who told his family, "If we do this properly, we won't have to work for the rest of our lives" - others made it clear they want to head back underground.

The world they know is fraught with danger, where profit often trumps caution. Still, they want to get back to mining.

Take Alex Vega. His plight has attracted little of the attention directed at other miners, whose underground exploits - an athlete who ran, a ham who recorded videos, a religious leader who worshipped around a makeshift altar, a Bolivian greeted by his president Wednesday - captivated the world.

Yet in many ways, the life of this family man-miner weaves together the story of a region where mining has long supported a hardscrabble existence.

The 32-year-old surfaced into the first sunlight of Wednesday morning, pumping his fists into the air in the joy of escape from a prison that has left his skin blanched and his family terrified. But there is little doubt in the minds of his relatives that he will return to the desert to search for copper and gold.

"You can't stop a miner," said his brother, Jonathan.

The two men grew up among nine siblings. All of them - mother, father, four sons and five daughters - worked in the family gold mine. The children started at 13, sorting gold-bearing rocks from waste. Soon, they graduated to more exciting endeavours.

"From 14 years old, we used explosives," Jonathan recalled. "You light the thing and start running. It was quite fun."

It was a hard life, but a good one.

"Thanks to mining, we've never missed out on a plate of food," sister Priscilla Vega said. "We've never starved."

They did, however, experience horror. In the mid-1990s, one brother plunged 40 metres inside the mine. He broke his clavicle, his frontal bone and his toes. He survived, but the family mine did not. Soon after the accident, his father Jose sold it and became a heavy-equipment mechanic.

Yet in a region where mining dominates the economy, few lines of work operate outside of mining. As the brothers learned their father's trade, they also set themselves up for a life underground. At one point, all four worked at the San Jose mine, walking the same tunnels that collapsed in August.

It was a traumatic time. In five years at the mine, Jonathan witnessed three men die and two suffer severed limbs, before quitting mining in 2008. The casualties continued, though. In the past year, Alex saw a man die and another lose a limb, Ms. Vega said.

Jonathan begged him to stop, and Alex himself had begun suffering from stress ulcers. But he had begun building a new house for his family - a wife and three children, ages 3 to 14 - and wanted the money.

"He's very worried about his family, about his children," Ms. Vega said. "He's like the perfect husband. He fights to get his family everything that they need, and to provide for them."

Five days before the San Jose mine collapsed, he promised he almost had enough money to finish the house, and would quit in two months. Two days before, he called his father, worried. The mine, he said, had made an odd creaking noise around noon. Was that a bad sign?

"At 12 o'clock, are you sure?" the father said, according to Ms. Vega. Five decades of mining experience had taught that such sounds were safe only in the morning.

"Get out," he told Alex. "If the mountain makes noise at 12, it's because it's cracking. It's dangerous."

But Mr. Vega remained. He was lured by the money, but he was also trapped. Long before the mine collapsed, he had discovered that in this part of Chile, mining was an unavoidable destiny.

"We're never going to be far from the mines in this region of Chile. This is what we live off," said Jonathan, kicking at the bone-dry desert sand that overlies the mine his brother escaped from only hours before.

"Can you imagine a miner planting onions? In this soil?"

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