One by One, Trapped Chilean Miners Return to Earth’s Surface
San Jose Mine, Chile (AP) - To hugs, cheers and tears, rescuers using a missile-like escape capsule began pulling 33 men one by one to fresh air and freedom at last early Wednesday, 69 days after they were trapped in a collapsed mine a half-mile underground.
Eight men were pulled out in the first hours of the apparently problem-free operation in the Chile's Atacama desert -- a drama that saw the world captivated by the miners' endurance and unity as officials meticulously prepared their rescue.
First out was Florencio Avalos, who wore sunglasses to protect him from the glare of bright lights. He smiled broadly as he emerged and hugged his sobbing 7-year-old son, Bairon, and wife, then got a bearhug from Chilean President Sebastian Pinera shortly after midnight local time.
A second miner, Mario Sepulveda Espina, was pulled to the surface about an hour later -- his shouts heard even before the capsule surfaced. After hugging his wife, Elvira, he jubilantly handed souvenir rocks from his underground prison nearly 2,300 feet (700 meters) below to laughing rescuers.
Then he jumped up and down as if to prove his strength before the medical team took him to a triage unit.
"I think I had extraordinary luck. ... I was with God and with the devil -- and God took me," Sepulveda said later in a special interview room set up by the government.
He praised the rescue operation, saying: "It's incredible that they saved us from 700 meters below."
A third Chilean miner, Juan Illanes, was rescued after another hour. The lone Bolivian, Carlos Mamani, was pulled out fourth, the youngest miner, 19-year-old Jimmy Sanchez, was fifth, Osman Isidro Araya came out sixth and Jose Ojeda, who turned 47 on Monday, was seventh.
Mamani was greeted by his wife, Veronica, with a hug and kiss that knocked off her white hardhat as Chile's president and first lady held small Bolivian flags. Mamani also gestured with both forefingers at his T-shirt, which said "Thank You Lord" above a Chilean flag. He shouted "Gracias, Chile!" before a round of backslapping with rescuers.
Through the first five rescues, the operation brought up a miner roughly every hour -- holding to a schedule announced earlier to get all out in about 36 hours. Then, rescuers paused to lubricate the spring-loaded wheels that give the capsule a smooth ride through the hard-rock shaft before they brought up the sixth and seventh miners.
When the last man surfaces, it promises to end a national crisis that began when 700,000 tons of rock collapsed Aug. 5, sealing the men in the lower reaches of the mine.
After the first capsule came out of the manhole-sized opening, Avalos emerged as bystanders cheered, clapped and broke into a chant of "Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le!" -- the country's name.
Avalos gave a thumbs-up as he was led to an ambulance and medical tests following his more than two months deep in the gold and copper mine -- the longest anyone has ever been trapped underground and survived.
Avalos, the 31-year-old second-in-command of the miners, was chosen to be first because he was in the best condition.
Pinera later explained they had not planned for Avalos' family to join rescuers at the opening of the shaft, but that little Bairon insisted on being there.
"I told Florencio that few times have I ever seen a son show so much love for his father," the president said.
"This won't be over until all 33 are out," he added.
"Hopefully this example of the miners will stay forever with us because these miners have demonstrated ... that when Chile unifies, and we always do it in the face of adversity, we are capable of great things," Pinera said.
After he emerged, Sepulveda criticized the mine's management, saying "in terms of labor, there has to be change."
Pinera promised it would.
"This mine has had a long history of accidents and that's why this mine will not reopen while it doesn't assure and guarantee the integrity, safety and life of who work in it are clearly protected. And the same will occur with many other mines in our country," said Pinera, who ordered a review of safety regulations after the collapse.
Minutes earlier, rescue expert Manuel Gonzalez of the state copper company Codelco grinned and made the sign of the cross as he was lowered to the trapped men -- apparently without incident. He was followed by Roberto Rios, a paramedic with the Chilean navy's special forces.
The last miner out has been decided: Shift foreman Luis Urzua, whose leadership was credited for helping the men endure 17 days with no outside contact after the collapse. The men made 48 hours' worth of rations last before rescuers reached them with a narrow borehole to send down more food.
Janette Marin, sister-in-law of miner Dario Segovia, said the order of rescue didn't matter.
"This won't be a success unless they all get out," she said, echoing the solidarity that the miners and people across Chile have expressed.
The paramedics can change the order of rescue based on a brief medical check once they're in the mine. First out will be those best able to handle any difficulties and tell their comrades what to expect. Then, the weakest and the ill -- in this case, about 10 suffer from hypertension, diabetes, dental and respiratory infections and skin lesions from the mine's oppressive humidity. The last should be people who are both physically fit and strong of character.
Chile has taken extensive precautions to ensure the miners' privacy, using a screen to block the top of the shaft from the more than 1,000 journalists at the scene.
The rescue was carried live on all-news channels from the U.S. to Europe and the Middle East. Iran's state English-language Press TV followed events live until President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad touched down in Beirut on his first state visit there. But the coverage was interrupted with every new miner rescued.
The miners were ushered through a tunnel built of metal containers to an ambulance for a trip of several hundred yards (meters) to a triage station for a medical check before being flown by helicopter to a hospital in Copiapo, a 10-minute ride away.
Two floors at the hospital were prepared for the miners to receive physical and psychological exams while being kept under observation in a ward as dark as a movie theater.
Relatives were urged to wait to greet the miners at home after a 48-hour hospital stay. Health Minister Jaime Manalich said no cameras or interviews will be allowed until the miners are released, unless the miners expressly desire it.
The only media allowed to record them coming out of the shaft will be a government photographer and Chile's state TV channel, whose live broadcast was delayed by 30 seconds or more to prevent the release of anything unexpected. Photographers and camera operators were on a platform more than 300 feet (90 meters) away.
The worst technical problem that could happen, rescue coordinator Andre Sougarett told The Associated Press, is that "a rock could fall," potentially jamming the capsule in the shaft.
Panic attacks are the rescuers' biggest concern. The miners aren't be sedated -- they need to be alert in case something goes wrong. If a miner must get out more quickly, rescuers will accelerate the capsule to a maximum 3 meters per second, Manalich said.
The rescue is risky simply because no one else has ever tried to extract miners from such depths, said Davitt McAteer, who directed the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration in the Clinton administration.
"You can be good and you can be lucky. And they've been good and lucky," McAteer told the AP. "Knock on wood that this luck holds out for the next 33 hours."
Mining Minister Laurence Golborne, whose management of the crisis has made him a media star in Chile, said authorities had already thought of everything.
"There is no need to try to start guessing what could go wrong. We have done that job," Golborne said. "We have hundreds of different contingencies."
As for the miners, Manalich said "they're actually much more relaxed than we are."
Rescuers finished reinforcing the top of the 2,041-foot (622-meter) escape shaft Monday, and the 13-foot (four-meter) capsule descended flawlessly in tests. The capsule -- the biggest of three built by Chilean navy engineers -- was named Phoenix for the mythical bird that rises from ashes. It was painted in the white, blue and red of the Chilean flag.
The miners were monitored closely in the capsule. A video camera watched for panic attacks. They also had oxygen masks and two-way voice communication. Their pulse, skin temperature and respiration rate were measured by a monitor around their abdomens. To prevent blood clotting from the quick ascent, they took aspirin and wore compression socks.
They were given a high-calorie liquid diet donated by NASA, designed to keep them from vomiting as the capsule rotated 10 to 12 times through curves in the 28-inch-diameter escape hole.
The miners also had sweaters for the shift in climate from about 90 degrees underground to near freezing on the surface after nightfall.
Engineers inserted steel piping at the top of the shaft, which is angled 11 degrees off vertical before plunging like a waterfall. Drillers had to curve the shaft to pass through "virgin" rock, avoiding collapsed areas and underground open spaces in the overexploited mine, which had operated since 1885.
Neighbors looked forward to barbecues and parties to replace the vigils held since their friends were trapped.
Urzua's neighbors told AP he probably insisted on being the last one up.
"He's a very good guy -- he keeps everybody's spirits up and is so responsible -- he's going to see this through to the end," said neighbor Angelica Vicencio, who has led a nightly vigil outside the Urzua home in Copiapo.
U.S. President Barack Obama praised rescuers, who include many Americans. "While that rescue is far from over and difficult work remains, we pray that by God's grace, the miners will be able to emerge safely and return to their families soon," he said.
Chile has promised that its care of the miners won't end for six months at least -- not until they can be sure that each one has readjusted.
Psychiatrists and other experts in surviving extreme situations predict their lives will be anything but normal.
Since Aug. 22, when a narrow bore hole broke through to their refuge and the miners stunned the world with a note, scrawled in red ink, disclosing their survival, their families have been exposed in ways they never imagined. Miners had to describe their physical and mental health in detail with teams of doctors and psychologists. In some cases, when both wives and lovers claimed the same man, everyone involved had to face the consequences.
Associated Press writers Frank Bajak and Vivian Sequera contributed to this report.