First Chile miner back on surface after 10-week ordeal, rescue operation underway.
Update: 3:17pm EST, 20 miners free; Chile rescue past halfway mark
SAN JOSE MINE, Chile (AFP) – Wild celebrations erupted Wednesday as the first of 33 men trapped underground for 10 weeks in a collapsed Chile mine triumphantly returned to the surface in a landmark rescue operation.
A powerful light danced across the twilight sky as 31-year-old Florencio Avalos stepped from a special steel rescue cage, back above ground, and breathing in the fresh air, for the first time in 69 days.
His rescue marks the culmination of a record-breaking two-month drama, during which the 33 men awaited rescue at the bottom of the dark, dank mine with the world captivated by their daily hopes and fears.
Hundreds of relatives, who have maintained an anxious vigil in a makeshift tent city which has sprung up around the remote gold and copper mine in the northern Chile desert, cheered and wept.
Avalos, who has helped send videos to the surface chronicling the miners’ battle for survival, was thrust into the glare of the world’s media, with thousands of journalists having flocked to Chile to record the historic moment.
The men — 32 Chileans and one Bolivian — have now survived buried below ground longer than any other person, after becoming trapped on August 5 when the upper galleries of their copper and gold mine collapsed.
For 17 days they were all but given up for dead, before a drill probe found them and they were able to attach a note to it, announcing the extraordinary news that they were all alive and well.
They had survived by strictly rationing their food and water, and had found refuge in an emergency shelter.
Now, after a multi-million operation to drill down a rescue shaft, they are being brought out of the mine one by one in a specially-designed narrow steel cage, dubbed Phoenix to symbolize their rebirth.
Avalos, who in a twist of fate had to leave behind his brother, Renan, was to be followed by Mario Sepulveda, 39, an electrical specialist, then 52-year-old Juan Illanes, and then Carlos Mamani, the only Bolivian in the group of the 33 trapped miners.
Each miner, equipped with oxygen and communications gear, will be slowly brought to the surface winched up the narrow shaft that was only completed last weekend.
Each tense ascent will take around 15 minutes as the cage climbs 622 meters (2,041 feet) — nearly the height of two Eiffel Towers stacked on top of each other.
With another 25-30 minutes needed to drop the cage down the shaft again, and a little time required to strap each miner into the contraption, a total of one hour was estimated for each man’s salvation.
But Avalos was brought up to the surface more quickly than had been expected, raising the prospect that the rescue could be completed even quicker than relatives had dared to hope.
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera was at the entrance of the mine to witness the miraculous rescues, which officials expect to complete by late Thursday.
Each will be greeted by up to three family members and waiting doctors before being flown to a regional hospital for at least two days of check-ups.
The men have become national heros as Chilean officials have worked feverishly to sustain them during their long wait for rescue — which some initially feared would not be before Christmas.
Food, water, oxygen, entertainment and communication lines have been dropped down to them through probe holes to help them survive the prolonged captivity in hot, dank conditions that they have described as “hell.”
Many of the men are suffering from skin conditions due to the humidity, while others have chest infections and blood pressure problems.
But the men, who have dubbed themselves “the 33,” have formed a closely-knit group, and there was said to have been squabbling about who should be the last to leave, with many of the men wanting to see their comrades winched to safety ahead of them.
When all the miners do make it to the surface, they will leave behind dark isolation for a blaze of publicity normally reserved for movie stars or sporting heroes.
Chilean media reports suggest the men are anticipating lucrative book and film deals that may limit what they end up saying to the waiting news media.
Video courtesy of MSNBC.