As the crowds cheered and the cameras rolled, the last miner rescued from the darkness of the cavern had an dramatic request of the Chilean President: “This must never happen again.”
The miner, Luis Urzúa, had acted as the shift foreman for the trapped miners. His leadership has been cited as one of the reasons for their extraordinary closeness and discipline during the 69 days of their ordeal.
Urzúa, who has been hailed as a hero, emerged Wednesday night from the pod that lifted him through the tortuous 2,041 feet ascent out of the collapsed mine. With the world watching and cameras rolling, Urzúa had the following exchange with Chilean President Sebastian Piñera:
Piñera: “Mr. Luis Urzúa has been the shift foreman and, as all good leaders, he was the last to leave.”
Urzúa: “Mr. President, I pass the shift command to you. But as we agreed the first time we spoke, this must never happen again!”
After the rescue, President Piñera seemed unequivocal about the fate of the San Jose mine.
"This mine will definitely never open again," he said. Piñera also said the conditions that allowed the accident "will not go unpunished. Those who are responsible will have to assume their responsibility."
The Aug. 5 collapse brought the 125-year-old San Jose mine's checkered safety record into focus and put Chile's top industry under close scrutiny. Many believe the collapse occurred because the mine was overworked and violated safety codes.
The families of 27 of the 33 rescued miners have sued its owners for negligence and compensatory damages.
Also suing the San Esteban company is Gino Cortez, a 40-year-old miner who lost his left leg from the knee down a month before the accident as he was leaving the mine after his shift, and a rock fell on him. He contends he was hurt because the mine was short on the metallic screens that protect miners from such collapses.
Pinera said in the coming days he would be offering a new proposal for better protecting Chilean workers.
After the collapse, he fired top regulators and created a commission to investigate both the accident and the industry's Sernageomin regulatory agency. Some action was swift -- the agency shut down at least 18 small mines for safety violations.
"The mine has been proven dangerous, but what's worse are the mine owners who don't offer any protection to men who work in mining," said Patricio Aguilar, 60, of nearby Copiapo, during celebrations of the meticulously executed rescue.
Advances in technology notwithstanding, mining remains a dangerous profession in the smaller mines here in northern Chile, which employ about 10,000 people.
Since 2000, about 34 people have died every year on average in mining accidents in Chile — with a high of 43 in 2008, according to Sernageomin data.
Most of the rescued miners live in Copiapo, a gritty, blue-collar city surrounded by the Acatama desert. Copiapo's central plaza was jammed with thousands of revelers watching the operation on a giant screen as street vendors hawked Chilean flags bearing the faces of "Los 33."
When Urzua, the last miner, emerged from the rescue capsule Piñera, eyes moist with emotion, told him: "You are not the same, and the country is not the same after this. You were an inspiration."
No one is known to have survived as long trapped underground.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.