SAN JOSE MINE, Chile – The miners who spent 69 agonizing days deep under the Chilean earth were hoisted one by one to freedom Oct. 13, their rescue moving with remarkable speed while their countrymen erupted in cheers and the world watched transfixed.
Beginning at midnight and sometimes as quickly as once every 40 minutes, the men climbed into a slender cage nearly a half-mile underground and made a smooth ascent into fresh air. By early afternoon, more than half the men – 21 of 33 – had been rescued.
In a meticulously planned operation, they were monitored by video on the way up for any sign of panic. They had oxygen masks, dark glasses to protect their eyes from unfamiliar daylight and sweaters for the jarring climate change, subterranean swelter to the chillier air above.
They emerged looking healthier than many had expected and even clean-shaven, and at least one, Mario Sepulveda, the second to taste freedom, bounded out and thrust a fist upward like a prizefighter.
The anxiety that had accompanied the careful final days of preparation broke at 12:11 a.m., with the first rescue – Florencio Avalos, who emerged from the missile-like chamber and smiled broadly after his half-mile journey. He hugged his sobbing 7-year-old son and wife and then Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, who has been deeply involved in an effort that had become a matter of national pride.
Avalos was followed an hour later by the most ebullient of the group, Sepulveda, whose shouts were heard even before the capsule peeked above the surface. He hugged his wife and handed out souvenir rocks from the mine to laughing rescuers.
The rescue has so far proceeded at a quicker pace than engineers first expected.
No one in recorded history has survived as long trapped underground as the 33 men. 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 at the first, breakthrough rescue just after midnight in the coastal Atacama desert.
In the capital, Santiago, a cacophony of car 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.”
News channels from North America to Europe and the Middle East carried live coverage, captivating the world.
The images beamed worldwide were extraordinary: Grainy footage from beneath the earth showed each miner climbing into the 13-foot-tall capsule, then disappearing upward through an opening. Then a camera showed the pod steadily rising through the dark, smooth-walled tunnel.
The ninth miner to be rescued, Mario Gomez, who at 63 is the oldest miner, dropped to his knees after he emerged, bowed his head in prayer and clutched the Chilean flag. His wife, Liliane Ramirez, pulled him up from the ground and embraced him.
Gomez is most experienced of the group, first entering a mine shaft to labor at age 12, and suffers from silicosis, a lung disease common to miners. He has been on antibiotics and bronchial inflammation medicine.
The lone foreigner among the miners, Carlos Mamani of Bolivia, was visited at a nearby clinic by Pinera and Bolivian President Evo Morales. The miner could be heard telling the Chilean president how nice it was to breathe fresh air and see the stars.
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.
The entire rescue operation was meticulously choreographed, with no expense spared in bringing in topflight drillers and equipment – and boring three separate holes into the copper and gold mine.
The operation started 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.
U.S. President Barack Obama praised rescuers, including a team from Center Rock Inc. of Berlin, Pa., that built and managed the piston-driven hammers that pounded open the hole. (Story continues after video.)
The last miner was slated to be shift foreman Luis Urzua, whose leadership was credited with helping the men endure the first two and a half weeks without outside contact. 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.
The harrowing ordeal began Aug. 5 when part of an underground copper mine in the Chilean desert collapsed, trapping the miners more than 2,000 feet below ground. On Aug. 22, 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.
Messages of solidarity for the Chilean and Bolivian miners came in from around the world, including from other miners. Solidarity among miners worldwide is legendary.
From Triangle, Va., United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts said UMWA members and “miners everywhere cheer the fulfillment of our hopes and prayers as the heroic rescue of the 33 trapped miners in Chile continues. A huge debt of thanks is owed to the many rescuers who worked tirelessly to bring them to the surface.”
Roberts continued, urging the public to look at this rescue as a “learning opportunity for those who regulate mining at home and abroad” to put the safety of miners above everything else.
“Far too often, as we have seen most recently in the United States at the Upper Big Branch mine, safety takes a back seat to production and profits, often with tragic results. Listening to reports of alleged safety violations at the San Jose mine, it is clear that this is a problem that recognizes no borders.”
Indeed, the secretary of the union representing employees of Compañia Minera San Esteban Primera, the owners of the San Jose deposit where the 33 have been trapped, said the company operates “without listening to the voice of the workers when they say that there is danger or risk.”
The union leader, Javier Castillo, said he used to work for the company and said they were very anti-union.
“Our main concern is that the comrades (trapped in the mine) get out,” he said. “But there are deeper issues, and the union movement is going to unite, it’s going to be one body, and we’re going to lobby so that from this tragedy a new way of seeing labor relations in Chile emerges.”
Numerous accidents, safety violations and even deaths have happened at the mines operated by San Estaban. The company has posted millions in profits even during period while the miners have been trapped.
Meanwhile, El Siglo, the newspaper of the Chilean Communist Party, reports that the 300 other employees of the San Jose mine have also been struggling without any paychecks or monetary help to survive since the mine shut down. A demonstration was held recently to call attention to these other miners. They charged the government has been indifferent to their plight and the company has been insensitive.
Photo: Jorge Galleguillos, 55, receives an embrace from Bolivian President Evo Morales after exiting from the mine. Galleguillos becomes the eleventh trapped miner to be rescued from the San Jose mine near Copiapo, Chile on October 13, 2010. (Hugo Infante/Government of Chile/CC )