Chile lifts first miners to freedom

Kraul is a special correspondent.

The first of 33 gold and copper miners entombed half a mile below ground for more than two months were hauled into the frigid Chilean desert air early Wednesday morning, emerging from a cramped, life-saving haven and into the embrace of family members once forced to confront the likelihood of their deaths.

Foreman Florencio Avalos, 31, was the first of the miners to ride up the shaft that rescuers hope will serve as the lifeline for all. Wearing sunglasses to protect his eyes from aboveground lights, Avalos squeezed into a specially fitted, bullet-shaped capsule only a shade smaller than the 28-inch diameter of the tunnel and was winched to the surface over 14 agonizing minutes.

He stepped from the capsule to an explosion of cheers and patriotic chanting from rescue workers and Chilean officials, his emergence broadcast by state TV to a worldwide audience witnessing a triumph of human determination over geology.


Amid whistles, raw shouts and tears, Avalos hugged his wife, Monica, his sobbing 7-year-old son, Bairon, and the president of Chile, Sebastian Pinera.

His appearance signaled the start of the final, still-perilous chapter in a 69-day-old drama that began Aug. 5 when an underground collapse at the mine sealed off exits for the men. The miners’ location and fate were unknown for 17 days, until a drill probing for air pockets poked through into a lunchroom where the men were waiting.

Since then, the original despair above and below ground gave way to rejoicing at the discovery, followed by anxiety as drills punched through rock to create a path for the rescue. Patience was further strained by technical delays on the final day, as crews hooked up communications gear and ran more tests on the integrity of the shaft.

But any frustration surrendered to elation when Manuel Gonzalez, a technician, descended and joined the men. Video from thousands of feet underground showed extraordinary scenes of the miners greeting a visitor from the surface.

Gonzalez’s arrival was proof that the trip could be made, but the drama still has time to run.

Rescue workers drafted a pecking order for the men’s ascent, and said they hoped to bring them out at a rate of about one an hour, a pace that would have everyone to safety in two days.

But they also cautioned against premature celebration, noting that only the top of the shaft had been lined with metal tubing and that each trip required the capsule to negotiate bends in the crude tunnel.

Pinera had arrived at the mine Tuesday afternoon to watch the rescue efforts and greet the miners.

“We made a promise to never surrender and we kept it,” the president said.

As relatives huddled around television sets or bonfires waiting for details about when their loved ones were to be hoisted up aboard the rescue capsule, they said they were allowing themselves to feel an enormous sense of relief.

Juan Alcalipe, whose son-in-law, Osma Araya, 30, was among the trapped miners, said he was excited to be so close to the end of a nightmare. Araya, he said, won’t be returning to work at the mine.

“My daughter won’t let him,” Alcalipe said.

After Avalos was ushered to a nearby makeshift clinic for a checkup, shower and change of clothes, another rescuer, Roberto Rios, climbed into the capsule and dropped into the shaft, which was emitting plumes of steam from the sauna-like chamber below.

Ana Maria Sepulveda, sister of Mario Sepulveda, who an hour later was the second to be rescued, said, “The day we have waited for so long has finally arrived.”

Rather than appearing feeble after his long imprisonment, Mario Sepulveda erupted from the rescue capsule as if he had scored a winning goal in the World Cup. First he hugged his wife, Elvira, then he hugged Pinera three times, then he hugged anyone within reach before leading a crowd of onlookers in a victory chant of “Long live Chile!” The ebullient miner also presented the president with a rock signed by all his comrades.

Juan Illanes, 52, was somewhat more subdued when he reached the top. The third man to be pulled from the ground hugged his wife, then climbed into a cot to be wheeled away.

The lone Bolivian among the miners, Carlos Mamani, was the next man lifted to safety. He greeted his wife, Veronica, with a kiss that knocked off her white hard hat. He then gestured to a Chilean flag on his T-shirt and shouted, “Gracias, Chile!”

As the night wore on and all eyes remained on the spinning wheel that lowered and raised the rescue capsule, the operation appeared to be running smoothly.

Near the rescue site were four red and white portable structures that serve as the clinic where, for the first two hours above ground, the miners receive first aid if needed.

Farther up a steep incline, past enormous cranes and other equipment used in the effort, were half a dozen container-like structures where miners are reunited with their families.

While strapped in the metal capsule, the men wear an oxygen mask, compression socks to prevent blood clots and a belt that continually measures pulse, temperature and respiration. There is two-way communication inside, and a small video camera focuses on the miner’s face.

In the event of signs of panic -- the biggest concern of rescuers -- the extraction will be speeded up.

The miners are not sedated because they need to be alert in case something goes wrong. But a miner could become claustrophobic and do something that damages the capsule. Or the cable could get hung up. Or the rig that pulls the cable could overheat.

As each miner nears the surface, authorities said, a “Genesis alarm” was to sound -- a wailing siren and flashing light -- for a full minute to alert doctors.

Earlier Tuesday, Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said he was not ready to declare “mission accomplished,” despite his confidence in the rescue preparations.

“We are really working as fast as possible to get these miners out,” Golborne said during a televised news conference.

Near the site, relatives held vigil at an area that has become known as Camp Hope.

“Here the tension is higher than down below,” Veronica Ticona, the sister of one of the miners, told the Associated Press. “Down there they are calm.”

Officials said that after the miners leave the clinic, they will be evacuated by helicopter or ambulance to the hospital in Copiapo for two days of observation.

The rescue effort is risky simply because no one else has ever tried to extract miners from such depths, Davitt McAteer, a former U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration director, told the Associated Press.

“You can be good and you can be lucky. And they’ve been good and lucky,” McAteer said. “Knock on wood that this luck holds out for the next 33 hours.”

Times wire services contributed to this report.