Chile celebrates as first miners make greatest escape

There were few words, in the end, that Florencio Avalos could find to express the joy he felt when he finally reached the surface of the San Jose mine shortly after midnight. Just a smile as wide as the Atacama Desert as he stepped out of the Phoenix escape capsule and fell into the arms of the wife and two children that he’d last embraced almost seventy days ago.

It was a magnificent sight to see, this shy and exhausted man breathing fresh air he must have thought he’d never breathe again, and bear-hugging the men who had managed to bring him to the surface in one piece. When the cage painted in patriotic red, white and blue cleared the top of the escape shaft, the cheer that went up over Camp Hope might have been heard half way to the moon.

A cloud of balloons filled the freezing Chilean night sky and church bells were rung in the camp and across the nation. The joyous crowd, many of whom have been camped out at the surface as long as “Los 33” have been trapped underground, hugged each other, set up party poppers, and chanted the words they will surely be chanting for days: “Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le!”

Avalos, a 31-year-old truck driver, whose brother, Renan, for now remains trapped underground, was chosen for the all-important role of being the first man up because of his physical fitness. As he was stretchered into a field hospital, having completed one of the most remarkable feats of survival in human history, he sat up and flashed a thumbs-up at the cameras.

So began the meticulous process of raising the 33 miners who were buried half a mile underground on August 5th, located 17 long days later, after surviving on little more than starvation rations, and kept alive by supplies sent down tubes no wider than a man’s fist.

One by one, the miners are rejoining their loved ones, watched by a proud nation and an overjoyed world. And each time the Phoenix escape capsule completes another one of its painstaking return journeys to the surface, there is a growing sense of certainty that all 33 of them will indeed eventually pull off this greatest of escapes.

By three o’clock this morning (7am UK time) Avalos had been joined by three more survivors. They included Mario Sepulveda, who marked his arrival at the surface by handing souvenir rocks to a laughing rescue team. Then he hugged his wife, Elvira, and asked “como está la perra? - “how’s the dog?”

The next colleague who had shared the ordeal inside the collapsed copper and gold mine to appear was Juan Illanes, followed just under an hour later by Carlos Mamani, a Bolivian.They would later be transferred to the Regional Hospital in Copiapo, where doctors will keep them under observation for the next 48 hours, by which time they will hopefully have been joined the rest of the 33 men whose solidarity helped them to survive the unimaginable pressures of their lengthy underground ordeal.

Later on Jimmy Sanchez, who was thought to be one of the more vulnerable of those trapped, and who had only been mining for five months at the time of the accident, became the fifth miner to reach the surface. Sanchez was shortly followed by thirty-year-old Osmán Araya, who is Florencio Ávalos Silva's brother-in-law. Master driller, Jose Ojeda, 46, was the seventh miner to successfully reach the surface. Claudio Yanez, who became engaged while underground, was the eighth miner to reach the surface, followed by the oldest miner, 63-year-old Mario Gomez and Alex Vega, 31, who was met by his wife Jessica.

The men behind the rescue, led by Laurence Golborne, the cucumber-cool Chilean Mining minister, are at pains to stress that they aren’t out of the woods yet. The operation can’t be called a success until all 33 are back at the surface, together with Manuel Gonzalez, the heroic rescue worker who was lowered down to their underground dungeon to oversee the rescue attempt.

First, they will have to raise the most physically-fragile of the miners through the 600 metre escape shaft, a physically-demanding task in the claustrophobic surroundings of a sealed space just 23 inches wide. Those men including Jose Ojeda, 46, who suffers from diabetes, Jorge Galleguillos, 56 who has hypertension, and Mario Gomez, who has Silicosis and at 63 is the eldest of the group.

The terrifying nature of the journey between ground-level and the mine tunnel became evident in the hours of painstaking testing that preceded the rescue effort. As the empty Phoenix capsule was slotted into the narrow Plan B escape shaft for final testing at around 10pm, it immediately became evident how little margin there was for error. It fit, but only just.

Later, the crowd at Camp Hope watched on big screens as Gonzalez was fastened into the cage and transported down to the men, after performing the sign of the cross. Via a video feed – run on a 30-second time delay in case of disaster – we watched him arrive in the cavern where the men are trapped. He smiled convivially, and walked out to applause and handshakes.

Later he was joined underground by Roberto Ros, a paramedic with the Chilean Navy’s Special Forces. Taking perhaps the most heroic roles of all, the two men will remain there until the last of “Los 33” is freed. That man seems likely to be Luis Urzua, the group’s unofficial leader who co-ordinated work schedules and devised the rationing system which kept them alive in the long period before they were first located.

In the days and weeks to come, no-one knows how these humble working men will cope with the pressures of instant fame after emerging to find themselves at the centre of a story that has transfixed the world. At some point soon, they will no doubt be called upon to share details of their ordeals. Their private lives may all-but disappear.

But for now, even the most intransigent problems seem capable of being solved. Earlier this evening, Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera invited Bolivian premiere Evo Morales to share in the occasion by greeting Manamie at the surface. Their two countries have been at odds for decades, having originally fallen out in a territorial dispute in the late 19th century. They currently don’t even have formal diplomatic ties. But it seems that the two leaders have now gone at least some way towards burying the hatchet. For this is a night when anything seems possible.