Misión cumplida: Chilean miners' ordeal comes to an end

Guy Adams
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:11

Some cried, others prayed, most just smiled and wrapped their arms around the wives, parents and children they had last held almost 70 days ago. They were too exhausted to say all that much, but one of the most exuberant men found the energy to sit up in his stretcher and ask his wife an all-important question: "How's the dog?"

One by one, the 33 men who had been trapped almost half a mile below the surface of the San Jose copper mine in the Atacama desert of northern Chile emerged into the fresh air, in a rescue operation cheered by a nation and watched by the entire world.

As each member of "Los 33" stepped out of the Phoenix rescue capsule, cheers rang through the sprawling hillside encampment of Camp Hope.

When the first survivor, a shy 31-year-old miner and truck driver called Florencio Avalos, emerged shortly after midnight, a cloud of red, white and blue balloons was released into the freezing night sky. Church bells rang in the camp and across the nation. Some onlookers sobbed, others hugged each other, chanting the name of a proud country: "Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le!"

On a screen erected outside the canteen in the centre of the camp, onlookers saw Avalos embrace his wife, Monica, and son, Bairon. Then he bear-hugged the rescue team, along with President Sebastian Pinera, and gave a thumbs-up to onlookers as he was stretchered into the medical facility.

An hour later, an exuberant Mario Sepulveda came to the surface. He pumped his fist, jumped up and down, shouted "I'm so happy!" waved a flag, and led the crowd in chants of "Long live Chile!" Then he pulled out a yellow bag full of rocks, which he presented to rescuers as "souvenirs" from the mine.

It was Sepulveda who asked about the health of the family's dog. The papers were calling him "The Presenter" because of the comic video recordings he'd sent to the surface. Now they have dubbed him "Super Mario".

As the night turned to day, the speed of each rescue, which involves sending the tight-fitting escape capsule down a 26in-wide shaft through more than 600m of solid rock, quickened.

By 10pm, all 33 were back on the surface. Many of their first steps of freedom mixed raw emotion with incongruous flourishes. Jimmy Sanchez, at 19 the youngest of the men, emerged waving the banner of his favourite football team, Universidad de Chile. Claudio Yanez, who had accepted a marriage proposal from his partner, Cristina, during his time underground, ran into his new fiancée's arms and kissed her so vigorously that her hard hat fell off.

The lone foreigner among the men, a Bolivian called Carlos Mamani, stepped out of the Phoenix to see a crowd of workmen waving his nation's flag. After embracing his wife, he pointed to the Chilean flag on hisT-shirt and shouted: "Thank you, Chile!" His words were loaded with significance since Chile and Bolivia are longstanding territorial rivals who do not even have diplomatic relations. In what observers have dubbed "mine diplomacy", Mamani's President, Evo Morales, attended the rescue operation and even gave a press conference with Pinera, his supposed enemy.

Not everyone's face was a picture of joy. The 21st miner to emerge, Yonni Barrios, embraced his mistress, Susana Valenzuela, while his wife waited at home, only having been alerted to the other's existence via a chance meeting in Camp Hope over a month ago.

The unthinkable odds over which the men have triumphed, surviving the first 17 days on rations of two spoons of tuna, two sips of milk and a cracker every 48 hours, are being ascribed to an act of God by their families, who have built Catholic shrines throughout Camp Hope and received a congratulatory message from the Pope yesterday.

Two previously agnostic men "found religion" during their time underground, attending daily prayer sessions. When the 63-year-old man who helped to convert them, Mario Gomez, reached the surface, he hugged his wife, unfurled a Chilean flag, and dropped to his knees in prayer. Omar Reygadas, another of the spiritual leaders among "Los 33", emerged holding a Bible.

Organisers of this well-run operation would not talk about miracles until all 33 miners had been saved, and the last of the rescue workers who descended into the mine to oversee the operation had returned. From early on during Tuesday night's rescue, they were nonetheless sufficiently confident to abandon a somewhat cautious plan to restrict images of the rescue by covering the main view of the top of the escape hole with a large Chilean flag. They also took the decision to make public a feed of proceedings from inside the mine.

The world was able to watch extraordinary footage of the moment when the Phoenix capsule dropped into the chamber for the first time, carrying a heroic rescue worker, Mario Gonzalez. He smiled convivially, and walked out to greet the bare-chested miners amid applause and handshakes.

"This rescue operation has been so marvellous, so clean, so emotional that there was no reason not to allow the eyes of the world, which have been watching so closely, to see it," said Chile's President, in a speech explaining the decision to screen the footage.

At Copiapo hospital yesterday afternoon around half of the 33 miners ate their first meal of chicken, rice and yoghurt. Several have dental problems and some have eye problems. The eldest, Mario Gomez, aged 63, is believed to be suffering from pneumonia. None had slept, and were not intending to do so until everyone had been rescued.

No one knows what difficulties await the freed men, who are being bused and flown to the Regional Hospital in Copiapo following their release. Their skin conditions and dental problems are relatively easy to fix, and for the most part they seem fit, if somewhat pale by Chilean standards. But the psychological scars of incarceration may be slower to heal.

There are signs that they are starting to get to grips with their new-found fame. Speaking to a camera crew in a tented area up the hill from the Plan B rescue shaft, Mario Sepulveda, the only miner to speak publicly during the first hours of the rescue, said: "I make a plea to the media to not treat us like artists or show-business figures. I would like you to show me how I am: a miner."

Asked for details of his experiences underground, he added: "I have learnt a lot of wonderful lessons about taking the good path in life. For those of you able to call your wives or your husbands, do so... I think I had extraordinary luck. I was with God and with the Devil. And I reached out for God and he won."

The saved...

1. 12:04am (Chilean time) Florencio Avalos The first to be rescued was met by his family and the Chilean President.

2. 1:10am Mario Sepulveda Carried a bag containing souvenir rocks, one of which he gave to President Pinera.

3. 2:08am Juan Illanes Celebrated his birthday while in the mine, and said the trip to the surface felt like a "cruise".

4. 3:09am Carlos Mamani The only foreigner in the group, President Pinera held a small Bolivian flag in his honour.

5. 4:10am Jimmy Sanchez The 19-year-old was the youngest in the group, and had been a miner for only five months.

6. 5:34am Osman Araya Began to cry as he was reunited with his wife in one of the most touching scenes of the day.

7. 6:21am Jose Ojeda Diabetes-sufferer Ojeda held aloft a Chilean flag as he left the capsule and was met by his stepdaughter.

8. 7:02am Claudio Yanez Was met by his fiancée, who had proposed to the drill operator by letter while he was in the mine.

9. 7:59am Mario Gomez Fell to his knees and prayed on reaching the surface, before hugging his wife, Lilianette Ramirez.

10. 8:52am Alex Vega Embraced his wife after leaving the capsule, and later held a Bible while being taken to the triage area.

11. 9:31am Jorge Galleguillos Had talked of feeling unwell in one of the miners' videos, and emerged with a full beard.

12. 10:11am Edison Peña Known as "the runner" because of the exercise regime he kept up while in the mine.

13. 10:54am Carlos Barrios Met by his father, who said in August that the miners' discovery was "more than a miracle".

14. 11:30am Victor Zamora While underground sent poems to his wife, who was there to meet him together with their son.

15. 12:07pm Victor Segovia Kept a diary while in the mine, and told by President Pinera that he is about to start a "new life".

16. 12:49pm Daniel Herrera Had the role of paramedic's assistant in the mine, and was greeted by his sobbing mother.

17. 1:38pm Omar Reygadas On leaving the capsule he knelt, holding a Bible. The 56-year-old has four great-grandchildren.

18. 2:49 pm Esteban Rojas, 44, proposed a church wedding "once and for all" in a message to the woman he married in a civil ceremony 25 years ago. They have three children.

19. 3:27pm Pablo Rojas, 45, reportedly went to work at the mine six months ago to help pay university fees for his son, who is studying medicine. He is married.

20. 3:59pm Dario Segovia, 48, is a lifelong miner whose father first took him underground at age 8. Twice married, he had three children from each marriage. He had worked at the mine for three months, drilling holes for dynamite. He has 12 brothers and sisters.

21. 4:31pm Johnny Barrios Rojas, 50, worked for 25 years at the mine and served as the medic for the group because he'd had first aid training. Awaiting above are relationships that need healing as well: his wife and his lover met at Camp Hope.

22. 5:04pm Samuel Avalos, 43, is married with three children, had been working as a street vendor and got a job at the mine for more money.

23. 5:32pm Carlos Bugueno, 26, found himself trapped alongside a childhood friend, Pedro Cortez. A passionate soccer fan, he asked to have game broadcasts piped below. Relatives said the former security guard went to work at the mine to earn money for a car and house.

24. 5:59pm Jose Henriquez, 55, formed and led a prayer group while trapped and had friends send 33 small Bibles down the tiny supply hole. Chilean reports say that in January he helped save several miners who had passed out in the mine, apparently due to gas, and had to be rescued himself when he was overcome returning for another miner. Married with twin daughters, he has spent 33 years in the mines and survived a landslide on the surface in 1986.

25. 6:24pm Renan Avalos, 29, is the brother of the first man out. He had worked at the mine five months.

26. 6:51pm Claudio Acuna, 35, proposed to his girlfriend Fabiola Araya from below ground. He has two children.

27. 7:18pm Franklin Lobos, 53, a former professional soccer player, drove the bus that carried the miners to work. Lobos was a midfielder on the Chilean teams La Serena, Iquique and Cobresal, and was on the national team that qualified for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. He has two daughters.

28. 7:44pm Richard Villaroel, 23, is returning to his wife, who is in the late stages of pregnancy.

29. 8:13pm Juan Carlos Aguilar, 46, has worked as a miner since he was 19. He is married with two children.

30. 8:37pm Raul Bustos, 40, a hydraulic engineer, was caught up in both of Chile's two recent tragedies. The tsunami caused by February's earthquake destroyed the shipyard where he worked. So he journeyed north to work in the mine — two months before he was trapped there. He would travel back 20 hours by bus to visit his wife and two children.

31. 9:01pm Pedro Cortez, 25, an electrician, helped install the communications system used to talk back and forth with the surface. He lost a finger in an earlier mining accident. He and his wife are separated and have one daughter.

32. 9.28pm Ariel Ticona, 28, was still awaiting rescue when his wife gave birth to their second daughter. They named her Hope. He worked with Mr Cortez to install the underground communications system.

33. 9.55pm Luis Alberto Urzua, 54, shift foreman at the time of the collapse, is widely credited with helping the men survive by enforcing tight rations of their limited food, lights and other supplies. Speaking for the miners shortly after their discovery, he told Chilean president Sebastian Pinera: "We hope that all of Chile shows its strength to help us get out of this hell."

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