Chile rejoices as rescue continues ahead of schedule

SAN JOSE MINE, Chile — With remarkable speed — and flawless execution — one miner after another climbed into a slender cage deep beneath the Chilean earth, was hoisted through 2,000 feet of rock and saw precious sunlight Wednesday after the longest underground entrapment in human history.

In this photo released by the Chilean government

In this photo released by the Chilean government

SAN JOSE MINE, Chile — With remarkable speed — and flawless execution — one miner after another climbed into a slender cage deep beneath the Chilean earth, was hoisted through 2,000 feet of rock and saw precious sunlight Wednesday after the longest underground entrapment in human history.

By midafternoon, 23 of the 33 miners, including all of the weakest and sickest, had been pulled to freedom, and officials said they might even be able to bring everyone to the surface by the end of the night.

After 69 days underground, including two weeks during which they were feared dead, the men emerged to the cheers of exuberant Chileans and before the eyes of a transfixed globe.

“Welcome to life,” President Sebastian Pinera told Victor Segvia, the 15th miner out, and on a day of superlatives, it seemed no overstatement.

They rejoined a world intensely curious about their ordeal, and certain to offer fame, jobs and previously unimaginable riches.

The men made the smooth ascent inside a capsule called Phoenix — 13 feet tall, barely wider than their shoulders and painted in the white, red and blue of the Chilean flag. It had a door that stuck occasionally, and its wheels needed lubricating at least once, but it worked exactly as planned.

Beginning at midnight Tuesday, and sometimes as quickly as every 40 minutes, the pod was lowered the nearly half-mile to where 700,000 tons of rock collapsed Aug. 5 and entombed the men. Then a miner would strap himself in, make the journey upward and emerge from a manhole into the blinding sun.

The rescue was planned with extreme care. The miners were monitored by video on the way up for any sign of panic. They had oxygen masks, dark glasses to protect their eyes from unfamiliar light and sweaters for the jarring transition from subterranean swelter to chilly desert air.

As they neared the surface, a camera attached to the top of the capsule showed a brilliant white piercing the darkness not unlike what accident survivors describe when they have near-death experiences.

The miners emerged looking healthier than many had expected and even clean-shaven, and at least one, Mario Sepulveda, the second to taste freedom, bounded out and thrust a fist upward like a prizefighter.

“We have prayed to San Lorenzo, the patron saint of miners, and to many other saints so that my brothers Florencio and Renan would come out of the mine all right. It is as if they had been born again,” said Priscila Avalos. One of her brothers was the first miner rescued, and the other was due out later in the evening.

As it travelled down and up, down and up, the rescue capsule was not rotating as much inside the 2,041-foot escape shaft as officials expected, allowing for faster trips, and officials said the operation could be complete by sunrise Thursday, if not sooner.

The first man out was Florencio Avalos, who emerged from the missile-like chamber and hugged his sobbing 7-year-old son, his wife and the Chilean president.

The last out was slated to be shift foreman Luis Urzua, whose leadership was credited with helping the men endure the first two and a half weeks without outside contact. The men made 48 hours’ worth of rations last before rescuers reached them with a narrow bore hole to send down more food.

No one in recorded history has survived as long trapped underground. For the first 17 days, no one even knew whether they were alive. In the weeks that followed, the world was captivated by their endurance and unity.

Chile exploded in joy and relief at the first, breakthrough rescue just after midnight in the coastal Atacama desert. Car horns sounded in Santiago, the Chilean capital, and school was cancelled in the nearby town of Copiapo, where 24 of the miners live.

News channels from North America to Europe and the Middle East carried live coverage. Pope Benedict XVI said in Spanish that he “continues with hope to entrust to God’s goodness” the fate of the men. Iran’s state English-language Press TV followed events live for a time. North Korean state TV had a crew at the mine.

The images beamed to the world were extraordinary: Grainy footage from beneath the earth showed each miner climbing into capsule, then disappearing upward through an opening. Then a camera showed the pod steadily rising through the dark, smooth-walled tunnel.

Among the first rescued was the youngest miner, Jimmy Sanchez, at 19 the father of a months-old baby. Two hours later came the oldest, Mario Gomez, 63, who suffers from a lung disease common to miners and had been on antibiotics inside the mine. He dropped to his knees after he emerged, bowed his head in prayer and clutched the Chilean flag.

Gomez’s wife, Liliane Ramirez, pulled him up from the ground and embraced him. The couple had talked over video chat once a week, and she said that he had repeated the promise he made to her in his initial letter from inside the mine: He would marry her properly in a church wedding, followed by the honeymoon they never had.

The lone foreigner among them, Carlos Mamani of Bolivia, was visited at a nearby clinic by Pinera and Bolivian President Evo Morales. The miner could be heard telling the Chilean president how nice it was to breathe fresh air and see the stars.

The men emerged in good health. But at the hospital in Copiapo, where miner after miner walked from the ambulance to a waiting wheelchair, it became clear that psychological issues would be as important to treat as physical ones.

Dr. Guillermo Swett said Sepulveda told him about an internal “fight with the devil” that he had inside the mine. He said Sanchez appeared to be having a hard time adjusting, and seemed depressed.

“He spoke very little and didn’t seem to connect,” the doctor said.

Most of the men emerged clean-shaven. Crews had lowered packages dubbed “palomas,” Spanish for carrier pigeons, with food and medicine for the weeks underground, and in the days before rescue they were sent razors and shaving cream.

The entire rescue operation was meticulously choreographed. No expense was spared in bringing in topflight drillers and equipment — and boring three separate holes into the copper and gold mine.

Mining is Chile’s lifeblood, providing 40 per cent of state earnings, and Pinera put his mining minister and the operations chief of state-owned Codelco, the country’s biggest company, in charge of the rescue.

It went so well that its managers abandoned a plan to restrict images of the rescue. A huge Chilean flag that was to obscure the hole from view was moved aside so the hundreds of cameras perched on a hill above could record images that state TV also fed live.

That included the surreal moment when the capsule dropped for the first time into the chamber, where the bare-chested miners, most stripped down to shorts because of the underground heat, mobbed the rescuer who emerged to serve as their guide to freedom.

“This rescue operation has been so marvelous, so clean, so emotional that there was no reason not to allow the eyes of the world — which have been watching this operation so closely — to see it,” a beaming Pinera told a news conference after Avalos was brought to the surface.

The operation started just before midnight, when a Codelco rescuer made the sign of the cross and was lowered to the trapped men. A navy paramedic went down after Avalos came up — a surprise improvisation as officials had said the two would go down to oversee the miners’ ascent before the first went up.

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