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 almost a half-mile underground.
Four men were pulled out in the early hours of the operation in the Chilean desert — a drama in which the world was captivated by the miners’ endurance and unity as officials meticulously prepared their rescue.
Rescued first was Florencio Avalos, who wore a helmet and 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 to laughing rescuers.
Then he jumped up and down as if to prove his strength to everyone before the medical team took him into a triage unit.
Through the first four rescues, the operation held to a schedule announced earlier to get all the miners out in about 36 hours.
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 below the Chilean desert — 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. He has been so shy that he volunteered to handle the camera rescuers sent down so he wouldn’t have to appear on the videos that the miners sent up.
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 the spirit of these miners will remain forever with us. … This country is capable of great things.”
Minutes earlier, mine 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, who helped prepare the miners for rescue.
“We made a promise to never surrender, and we kept it,” Pinera said as he waited to greet the miners, whose endurance and unity captivated the world as Chile meticulously prepared their rescue.
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 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. They will then be taken by helicopter to a hospital.
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 partly up the shaft.
Panic attacks are the rescuers’ biggest concern. The miners will not 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, Health Minister Jaime 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. A miner could get claustrophobic and do something to damage the capsule. Or a falling rock could wedge it in the shaft. Or the cable could get hung up. Or the rig that pulls the cable could overheat.
“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, “It remains a paradox — 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 is painted in the white, blue and red of the Chilean flag.
The miners were to be closely monitored from the moment they’re strapped in the capsule. They were given a high-calorie liquid diet donated by NASA, designed to keep them from vomiting as the capsule rotates 10 to 12 times through curves in the 28-inch-diameter escape hole.
A video camera in the escape capsule watched for panic attacks. The miners have oxygen masks and two-way voice communication.
Their pulse, skin temperature and respiration rate are constantly measured through a monitor around their abdomens. To prevent blood clotting from the quick ascent, they took aspirin and wore compression socks.
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, narrowly avoiding collapsed areas and underground open spaces in the overexploited mine, which had operated since 1885.
After medical checks and visits with family members selected by the miners, the men will be flown to the hospital in Copiapo, a 10-minute ride away. Two floors were prepared where the miners will receive physical and psychological exams and be kept under observation in a ward as dark as a movie theater.
Chilean air force Lt. Col. Aldo Carbone said helicopter pilots were issued night-vision goggles but won’t fly unless it is clear of the thick Pacific Ocean fog that rolls in at night.
Families were urged to wait and prepare to greet the miners at home after a 48-hour hospital stay. Manalich said no cameras or interviews will be allowed until the miners are released, unless the miners expressly desire it.
Neighbors looked forward to barbecues and parties to replace the vigils held since their friends were trapped.
Urzua’s neighbors told the 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 miner has readjusted.
Psychiatrists and other experts in surviving extreme situations predict their lives will be anything but normal.