The miners emerged like clockwork, jubilantly embracing wives, children and rescuers and looking remarkably composed Wednesday after languishing for 69 days in the depths of a mine that easily could have been their tomb.
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The anxiety that had accompanied the final few days of preparation melted away at 12:11 a.m. when the stoutest of the 33 miners, Florencio Avalos, emerged from the missile-like rescue capsule smiling broadly after his half-mile journey to the surface.
In a din of cheers, he hugged his sobbing 7-year-old son and wife and then President Sebastian Pinera, who has been deeply involved in an effort that had become a matter of national pride.
The most ebullient of the bunch came out second, an hour later.
"I think I had extraordinary luck. I was with God and with the devil. And I reached out for God," said Mario Sepulveda as he awaited the air force helicopter ride to a nearby hospital where all miners were to spend 48 hours under medical observation.
The miners have survived more time trapped underground than anyone on record.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu related to the Chilean rescue efforts Wednesday, saying this was one of those "rare moments" that raise the human spirit.
"The whole world is moved form the human act of saving miners trapped in the bowels of the earth," Netanyahu said. "We send our best wishes to the Chilean people and all those who are assisting the rescue work."
Chile exploded in joy and relief at the news of the first, breakthrough rescue just after midnight in the coastal Atacama desert.
In the capital, Santiago, a cacophony of motorists' horns sounded. In the nearby regional capital of Copiapo, from which 24 of the miners hail, the mayor canceled school so parents and children could "watch the rescue in the warmth of the home."
The methodical pace at which the miners were being delivered from the mountain of their incarceration kept with the rescue team's prediction it would have them all out in about 36 hours, barring major glitches.
After the fifth miner, the rescuers paused to lubricate the spring-loaded wheels that give the 13-foot-tall (4-meter-tall) capsule a smooth ride through the hard-rock shaft. Then they brought up the sixth and seventh.
As dawn broke over the rock-strewn moonscape, eight men had been pulled from the mine in a little more than seven hours, putting the rescue on track to end before the sun comes up Thursday.
The entire rescue operation was meticulously choreographed, with no expense spared in bringing in topflight drillers and equipment — and drilling three separate holes into the copper and gold mine.
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 what a legion of journalists had deemed an ultraconservative plan for restricting 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 into the chamber for the first time where the bare-chested miners, most stripped down to shorts because of the subterranean swelter, 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.
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 33 in the lower reaches of the mine.
The first capsule came out of the manhole-sized opening, and Avalos stepped out as bystanders cheered, clapped and broke into a chant of "Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le!" — the country's name.
Avalos, the 31-year-old second-in-command of the miners, was chosen to be first because he was in the best condition. The next three men out, including the lone foreigner, Carlos Mamani of Bolivia, followed because they were deemed the fittest of body and mind.
The next group of 10 included miners with health problems such as hypertension, diabetes and skin ulcers.
Sepulveda's shouts were heard even before the capsule surfaced. After hugging his wife, he jokingly handed souvenir rocks from the mine to laughing rescuers. Then he bounded out behind other officials behind a barrier and thrust a fist upward like a prizefighter.
Putting him on a gurney for a short ambulance ride to a triage center — the protocol for all the miners — almost seemed like overkill.
The operation commenced 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.
The last miner was slated to be 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 bore hole 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.
Chilean officials played down the risks of the rescue.
Panic attacks during the ascent, they said, were the rescuers' biggest concern. The miners were not sedated — they needed to be alert in case something went awry. Health Minister Jaime Manaliget said rescuers could accelerate the capsule to its maximum speed of 3 meters per second if necessary.
Rescue coordinator Andre Sougarett told The Associated Press beforehand that the worst technical problem would be the possibility that "a rock could fall" and jam the capsule in the shaft.
But Davitt McAteer, who directed the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration in the Clinton administration, said the risks were actually myriad: A miner could get claustrophobic and somehow jam the capsule, 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 just before the operation commenced. "Knock on wood that this luck holds out for the next 33 hours."
The CEO of the Austrian company that made the winch and pulley system that raised and lowered the capsule said there was no danger of the motor overheating because the winch was not working under maximum capacity.
Mining Minister Laurence Golborne, whose management of the crisis has made him a media star in Chile, insisted all had been considered.
"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."
McAteer said he gave "very high marks" to the Chileans for creating lowered expectations by saying that it might take until Christmas to rescue the men — and then consistently delivering results ahead of schedule.
"Second, they have had very few technical problems," he said.
Rescuers finished reinforcing the top of the 2,041-foot (622-meter) escape shaft Monday, and capsules 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' vital signs were closely monitored throughout the ride,
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 also had oxygen masks and
two-way voice communication. To prevent blood clotting from the quick
ascent, they took aspirin and wore compression socks.
also had sweaters for the shift in climate from about 90 degrees
underground to near freezing on the surface after nightfall.
inserted steel piping at the top of the shaft, which is angled 11
degrees off vertical before plunging like a waterfall.
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.
At the regional hospital in
Copiapo, two floors were prepared for the miners to be evaluated in an
observation ward as dark as a movie theater.
US President Barack
Obama praised rescuers, who include the team from Center Rock Inc. of
Berlin, Pennsylvania who built and managed the piston-driven hammers
that pounded open the hole.
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.
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
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.Herb Keinon contributed to this report.