Chile’s trapped miners were shuttled up a narrow escape shaft to freedom and joyous reunions on Wednesday in a meticulously planned rescue operation that ended the longest underground entrapment in human history.
One after another, the miners climbed into a missile-like steel capsule barely wider than a man’s shoulders and took a 15-minute journey through 2,000 feet of rock to the surface.
All of the miners were freed Wednesday night in a rescue operation that advanced rapidly without hitches.
The return of the six rescuers who went down to help the miners followed and was concluded about two hours later. A rock was unceremoniously placed atop the lid of the emergency shaft.
Earlier, scenes of jubilation erupted each time a miner arrived to a hero’s welcome above the San Jose gold and copper mine in Chile’s northern Atacama desert.
The last miner out was Luis Alberto Urzua, 54, the shift foreman credited with helping the trapped miners endure 17 days in isolation before Chileans discovered the men had survived the mine collapse.
“We have done what the entire world was waiting for,” he told Chilean President Sebastian Pinera immediately after his rescue. “The 70 days that we fought so hard were not in vain. We had strength, we had spirit, we wanted to fight, we wanted to fight for our families, and that was the greatest thing.”
The president told him: “You are not the same, and the country is not the same after this. You were an inspiration. Go hug your wife and your daughter.” With Urzua by his side, he led the crowd in singing the national anthem.
“We were not only in the hearts of Latin American but in the hearts of the world,” Pinera told the crowd about the “night of happiness.”
Before Urzua came Ariel Ticona, 29, whose wife gave birth â€” to a baby girl named Hope, Esperanza in Spanish â€” while he was trapped underground.
Earlier, Franklin Lobos, 53,emerged with great applause. He was the only rescued man whose name was widely known in Chile before the disaster. Lobos played for the Chilean national soccer team that qualified for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.
After 69 days underground, including more than 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.
The capsule-rescue operation got faster as it went along, and all the men were safely above ground in 22 hours, 37 minutes, after it started.
The rescue workers who talked the men through the final hours were being hoisted one at time to the surface.
“Welcome to life,” Pinera told Victor Segovia, the 15th miner out, and on a day of superlatives, it seemed no overstatement.
Others pulled out included Yonni Barrios, whose home life became an issue when his wife confronted a mistress who had also gone to the mine to keep vigil. His wife had refused to be there for the rescue, but the mistress did attend, giving Barrios a big hug.
His sister, Lidia Barrios Rojas, earlier told London’s Daily Telegraph that “he says quite simply that he loves them both, that they are both important to him and he wants them to be friends with each other.”
Health Minister Jaime Manalich said some of the miners probably will be able to leave the hospital Thursday â€” earlier than projected â€” but many had been unable to sleep, wanted to talk with families and were anxious. One was treated for pneumonia, and two needed dental work.
The miners jubilantly embraced wives, children and rescuers, and looked remarkably composed.
The anxiety that had accompanied the final days of preparation melted away just after midnight local time when the stoutest of the miners, Florencio Avalos, 31, emerged from the missile-like rescue capsule smiling broadly after his half-mile journey to the surface.
“I told Florencio that few times have I ever seen a son show so much love for his father,” Pinera said. “Hopefully the spirit of these miners will remain forever with us … This country is capable of great things.”
Avalos, 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.
An hour later, Mario Sepulveda, 40, the most ebullient of the bunch, was lifted out. He hugged his wife, Elvira, and then jubilantly handed souvenir rocks from his underground prison to laughing rescuers.
“I’m so happy!” Sepulveda yelled, grinning, punching his fist in the air and hugging everyone in sight.
Sepulveda later said he had spent the last 10 weeks “between God and the devil.”
“They fought, God won,” he added.
Like the wives on the surface who had their hair and nails done for the occasion, the men looked groomed and clean-shaven as they emerged despite spending more than two months deep beneath the surface.
Through the first five rescues, the operation brought up a miner roughly every hour â€” 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 continuing the rescues. The pace picked up as the day wore on.
Mario Gomez, at 63 the oldest of the miners, hugged his wife and then dropped to his knees to pray with his yellow hard hat still perched on his head.
He was then checked into a field hospital erected at the mine, where he was visited by Pinera. Gomez suffers from silicosis, a lung disease common to miners.
The first men rescued were the “young ones, the healthier ones that could handle the ascent,” said Manalich. The next group of men winched up the shaft, including Gomez, were in “more precarious health.”
Others lifted out Wednesday include Edison Pena Villarroel, 34, an Elvis fan who led the miners in singing and ran six miles a day in the cramped chamber to keep fit, and Carlos Barrios, 27, who reportedly joked to his mother that one good thing about being trapped was that there was no one telling him to wash.
Shortly after Villaroel’s release, Graceland said it was inviting him to Presley’s estate in Memphis, Tenn.
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 the unfamiliar sunlight 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.
As it traveled 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.
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 when the rescue began just after midnight in the coastal Atacama desert. Car horns sounded in Santiago, the Chilean capital, and school was canceled 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. Crews from Russia and Japan and North Korean state TV were 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.
Most of the men emerged clean-shaven. More than 300 people at the mine alone had worked on the rescue or to sustain them during their long wait by lowering rocket-shaped tubes dubbed “palomas,” Spanish for carrier pigeons. Along with the food and medicine came razors and shaving cream.
Estimates for the rescue operation alone have soared beyond $22 million, though the government has repeatedly insisted that money is not a concern.
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.
The entire rescue operation was meticulously choreographed. No expense was spared in bringing in topflight drillers and equipment â€” and boring three separate holes into the copper and gold mine. Only one has been finished â€” the one through which the miners exited.
Mining is Chile’s lifeblood, providing 40 percent 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 â€” which have been watching this operation so closely â€” to see it,” a a beaming Pinera told a news conference after the first miner safely surfaced.
The miners’ vital signs were closely monitored throughout the ride. They were given a high-calorie liquid diet donated by NASA, designed to prevent nausea from any rotation of the capsule as it travels through curves in the 28-inch-diameter escape hole.
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.
U.S. President Barack Obama said the rescue had “inspired the world.” The crews included many Americans, including a driller operator from Denver and a team from Center Rock Inc. of Berlin, Pa., that built and managed the piston-driven hammers that pounded the hole through rock laced with quartzite, some of the hardest and most abrasive rock.
Chile has promised that its care of the miners won’t end for six months at least â€” not until they can be sure that each man 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.
As trying as their time underground was, the miners now face challenges so bewildering that no amount of coaching can fully prepare them. Rejoining a world intensely curious about their ordeal, they have been invited to presidential palaces, to take all-expenses-paid vacations and to appear on countless TV shows. Book and movie deals are pending, along with job offers.
Sepulveda’s performance exiting from the shaft appeared to confirm what many Chileans thought when they saw his engaging performances in videos sent up from below â€” that he could have a future as a TV personality.
But he tried to quash the idea as he spoke to viewers of Chile’s state television channel while sitting with his wife and children shortly after his rescue.
“The only thing I’ll ask of you is that you don’t treat me as an artist or a journalist, but as a miner,” he said. “I was born a miner and I’ll die a miner.”