8 of 33 men rescued from Chilean mine after 69 days

Netanyahu: We send our best wishes to the Chilean people and all those who are assisting the rescue work.

By ASSOCIATED PRESS
October 13, 2010 08:14
First of 33 Chilean miners freed after 69 days.

Chile miner freed 311. (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Chile — 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.

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.

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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.

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.

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."

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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