Eight hundred feet below ground, in water that could fill 55 Olympic swimming pools, and after more than a week cut off from civilisation, the miners trapped in a Chinese coal mine did not give up hope.
They ate bark and sawdust. They strapped themselves to the walls lest they slip underwater and drown in their sleep. They tapped on the pipes in case anyone was listening. And early yesterday morning, eight days and eight nights after their ordeal began, the miracle they had been hoping for happened. They were saved.
As stretcher bearers in orange overalls came out of the shaft at Wangjialing colliery, nearly 5,000 rescuers, who had spent over a week pumping water out of the flooded mine, applauded. The 115 survivors emerged from the bowels of the earth wrapped in blankets, many of them covering their eyes, unused to the sunlight after so long in the darkness.
"It is a miracle. It is worth all of our efforts without sleep for several days," Wei Fusheng, a white-haired and black-faced rescue worker, told state media, before bursting into tears.
Teams are continuing to search for the 39 miners who are still unaccounted for. But for the families of those who have been saved, the news of their survival was an extraordinary gift on China's annual "grave-sweeping day", a national holiday to mourn the dead.
One of the rescued miners borrowed a doctor's mobile phone to call his family in rural Henan province, the People's Daily reported. "I'm good," he said to his wife. "How are you and the kid?"
The story of the miners' plight, and eventual rescue, has captivated China. As well as the thousands of anxious family members and onlookers lining the road in Xiangning, Shanxi province, where the mine stands, the rescue was seen by millions on state television. President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao sent a message to the rescuers: "Strive with all your might and make each second count, doing everything possible to rescue the workers who are trapped."
The crisis began when one of the miners pierced a wall adjoining an abandoned shaft, which was flooded, causing water to rush in before the men had a chance to escape. But they did everything they could to stay alive.
One survivor described how his belt had become stuck in something jutting out of the wall of the shaft. He was soaked in water for three days and three nights. On the fourth day, two mine cars drifted past and he and eight of his co-workers, with great effort, managed to climb in. They stayed huddled together in the mine car, encouraging each other through the appalling conditions. The cars rose to a higher part of the shaft and they found a place to wait for a rescue they could only hope and pray would come.
The miners were working on nine platforms when the flooding started, and four of these were not submerged. Survivors were brought out from one of these platforms, where rescuers had drilled a vertical hole last week after they had heard tapping on a pipe. They had previously used the entry point to make sure the men had oxygen and to allow rescuers to send packs containing glucose and milk into the mine. Rescuers used five-seat kayaks to bring out the men, guided by the miners' lamps.
The first batch of nine rescued miners were able to give their names and say where they came from and doctors said they were in remarkably good health considering their ordeal, though they were suffering from low body temperatures, dehydration and shock.
The eighth miner to be brought out was Li Guoyu, 38, who was able to communicate clearly with doctors. Another of the first batch of rescued was able to point at where his leg was hurting. Many of the injuries related to being underwater for such a long time.
"It is a miracle in China's mining rescue history," said Luo Lin, head of the State Administration of Work Safety, who was waiting at the pit entrance, while the Shanxi Communist Party chief Zhang Baoshun said that the rescue succeeded because of "scientific methods and technology".
The official Xinhua news agency quoted Shanxi governor Wang Jun as saying that rescuers were still searching for 39 miners. "The rescue work is still challenging," he added. Five local hospitals were taking in survivors in a constant stream as ambulances arrived from the pit. But not everyone has survived. Rescue workers said they also saw bodies in the mine, without giving details. For now, the focus is on the living.
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