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Chile mine rescue; 8 hoisted safely to surface
SAN JOSE MINE, Oct 13 (Agencies):
Published on 13 Oct. 2010 9:01 PM IST
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After 10 weeks in a dark, hot purgatory 2,000 feet underground, the first of 33 trapped miners were hoisted to freedom early Wednesday, a rescue marking the beginning of the end of a drama that captivated people worldwide.
The rescue operation continued at a steady pace of about one miner per hour, with eight men brought safely to the surface so far, each emerging to cheers of “Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le!” -- the country’s name. The operation to free all 33 miners could last until Thursday.
Florencio Avalos, 31, emerged in the cold of Chile’s northern Atacama Desert just after midnight Wednesday (11 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday), 69 days after he and his fellow miners were sealed in a cavern. They were trapped Aug. 5 when hundreds of thousands of tons of rocks collapsed on the gold and copper mine.
A specially designed rescue capsule, sporting the Chilean flag and shaped like a missile, maneuvered deep into the Earth down a 28-inch-wide emergency shaft and extricated Avalos. He was welcomed back to the surface with spirited cheers and tearful hugs before medical personnel led him away for a checkup.
The capsule, meanwhile, was quickly sent back down to bring out Mario Sepulveda, 40, whose whoops of joy could be heard even before the capsule broke the surface. Once freed, Sepulveda exubrantly handed out souvenir rocks he brought up with him in a yellow satchel, even giving one to Chilean President Sebastian Pinera.
“I think I had extraordinary luck,” Sepulveda later told reporters. “I was with God and with the devil - and God took me.”
Among the other rescued miners was the youngest -- 19-year-old Jimmy Sanchez, who hugged his waiting father -- and a Bolivian, Carlos Mamani, who shouted, “Gracias, Chile!” when he emerged from the escape capsule.
The plight of the miners has gripped this country of 17 million, and the dramatic nighttime rescue of Avalos played out on national television. The government carefully choreographed several facets, including Pinera’s pep talk to rescue planners and the singing of the national anthem.
“We made a promise to never surrender, and we kept it,” Pinera said as he waited to welcome the miners.
The government also provided a televised feed of events at both ends of the rescue shaft that was seen worldwide.
The rescue drew scores of people Tuesday night to the Chilean Embassy in the District. High hopes mixed with anxiety as the crowd watched live coverage from a Chilean network on a jumbo television screen, and they celebrated Avalos’s arrival with an eruption of cheers and the popping of champagne corks.
The 33 men are believed to have survived longer underground than anyone else in the history of mining accidents.
“All Chileans are with you, and may God be with you,” Pinera told rescuer Manuel Gonzalez moments before he entered the capsule and went deep underground. “And may you bring us the miners.”
When Gonzalez reached the cavern 18 minutes later, he hugged several of the miners and then helped Avalos fit into the capsule. A winch then pulled Avalos on his bumpy, claustrophobic journey to the surface.
Every step of the operation had been meticulously planned, from the engineering that went into the construction of the rescue capsule to Tuesday’s tests of the winch.
The miners had been given a special diet to help prevent their becoming nauseated on the way up. After weeks in the sweltering mine, they were also expected to wear sweaters for their reentry into the world above; temperatures in the Atacama Desert can drop close to freezing at night.
Rescue planners chose Avalos to go first after careful consideration. An expert miner used to working in tight places, he was considered fit of body and mind and thus seen as capable of dealing with any unforeseen problems, such as the capsule becoming lodged in the rescue shaft.
The three miners picked to follow Avalos to the surface are also considered capable of handling difficulties on the way up. The next group includes those who are weaker, older and suffering from a range of ailments. The final group of miners, like those who led off the rescue, are also strong and able.
The last miner to be raised is scheduled to be Luis Urzua, 54, shift chief when the mine collapsed and a steady leader for the other miners.
Speaking by phone from the mine Tuesday morning, Urzua reflected on the saga, carefully choosing his words to describe what it was like for such a large group to be imprisoned in such tight quarters for so long. “This was a group with different personalities and manners of being,” he said.
“We have had a stage here in our lives that we never planned for,” said Urzua, who has been mining for three decades. “I hope to never live again like this, but that’s the life of a miner.”
Taking charge after the collapse, Urzua rationed food, giving each miner one spoonful of tuna every 48 hours during their first 17 days trapped underground. He also kept order, something that NASA specialists who have been monitoring the crisis say was vital to keeping up morale and preventing discord.
“We had to be strong,” Urzua said. “All the workers in the mine fulfilled their roles.”
One miner became the spokesman to the outside world, for instance, while others provided comic relief for their comrades and still others simply showed fortitude for their less experienced colleagues.

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