Four Chilean miners rescued, 29 more to surface

Chilean president hugging one of the rescued miners

Four of the 33 miners who had been trapped underground for two months ascended to the surface here early Wednesday morning, the beginning of the end of a rescue operation that has inspired the nation and riveted the world.

Carlos Mamani, 24, the lone Bolivian among the group of miners, stepped out of the Phoenix capsule that had lifted him from the mine and was greeted by his wife and a cheering audience keeping an overnight vigil of the rescue operation.

Three hours earlier the first miner, Florencio Ávalos, 31, had traveled up a narrow, nearly half-mile rescue shaft in the specially designed capsule that officials had been testing for much of Tuesday. Shortly after midnight, horns blared as the capsule reached the surface with Mr. Ávalos inside. With a look of sturdy calm, he hugged his family, his nation’s president and the workers around him before being taken away on a stretcher, giving a thumbs-up as he left.

The second and third miners to be lifted out, Mario Sepúlveda, 39, and Juan Illanes, in his early 50s, followed afterward.

The rescue had finally begun.

“This is a marvelous start,” said Rodrigo Pedreros, 34, a fireman watching at the mine. “I’m praying it all goes well.”

The second miner to reach the surface, Mr. Sepúlveda, was exuberant as he left the capsule, hugging family members and officials. He embraced Mr. Piñera three times and presented people with gifts: rocks from the mine. Then he led the crowd in a cheer. “Chi, Chi, Chi, le, le, le,” they shouted. “Miners of Chile.”

Deep in the mine, 29 other miners waited for their turn, along with a rescue worker who had descended to their underground haven in the narrow capsule, which was painted with the red, white and blue of the Chilean flag.

When the rescuer finally reached the miners late Tuesday, he was greeted with enthusiastic handshakes from the men.

The day had been one of great excitement and last-minute delays. As President Sebastián Piñera waited anxiously near the rescue hole, the families of the miners and more than 1,300 journalists gathered around plasma televisions set up at Camp Hope, the makeshift tent city that vibrated with a carnival-like atmosphere as the rescue drew near. At one point, Mr. Piñera mingled with the families and even broke into song with them.

“The day has finally arrived,” said Marta Mesías, 51, the aunt of one miner, Claudio Yáñez, 34. “We’re going to toast him with champagne, and feed him a bit of roasted chicken.”

The operation is expected to take one to two days, with Luis Urzúa, 54, the shift leader who organized the miners’ lives in the mine, the last to come up.

The race to save the miners has thrust Chile into a spotlight it has often sought but rarely experienced. While lauded for its economic management and austerity, the nation has often found the world’s attention trained more on its human rights violations and natural disasters than on uplifting moments.

But the perseverance of the miners, trapped so far underground in a lightless, dank space, has transfixed the globe with a universal story of human struggle and the enormously complex operation to rescue them.

It has involved untold millions of dollars, specialists from NASA and drilling experts from a dozen or so countries. Some here at the mine have compared the rescue effort to the Apollo 13 space mission, for the emotional tension it has caused and the expectation of a collective sigh of relief at the end.

“We hope that with the help of God this epic will end in a happy way,” Mr. Piñera said before the rescue began.

Despite high expectations, officials here warned that the operation was still in a very precarious phase. The rescue hole is barely wider than the capsule that will ride inside it, shuttling the men about 2,000 feet to the surface, one at a time. Complicating matters, the hole is not even straight, raising fears that the capsule could snag on the long trip.

The decision by Mr. Piñera, Chile’s first right-wing leader in 20 years, to stake his young presidency on an unbridled push to rescue the miners was an extraordinary political calculation. But it has paid big dividends, bolstering his popularity at home and propelling him onto an international stage often dominated by other large personalities in the region.

After a cave-in trapped the miners on Aug. 5, their fate was uncertain, at best. Advisers to Mr. Piñera counseled him not to raise expectations that they could be found alive. Laurence Golborne, the mining minister, said publicly that their chances of having survived were slim, comments that bothered many Chileans.

But Mr. Piñera, who was in Ecuador when the news came of the lost miners, argued differently. “I had a strong conviction, very deep inside of me, that they were alive, and that was a strong support for my actions,” he said in an interview in late August.

He set in motion an intense rescue effort, sparing no expense. Workers drilled a skinny borehole, and on Aug. 22 a drilling hammer came up with red paint. Wrapped around it with rubber bands were two notes: a love letter from Mario Gómez, the oldest miner of the group, to his wife, and another in red ink. “We are well in the refuge the 33,” it read.

Suddenly the name of the makeshift vigil at the mine — Camp Hope — took on new meaning. Mr. Piñera flew here right after his father-in-law’s wake to celebrate with the miners’ families.

But the Chileans were in uncharted territory. To their knowledge, no one had tried a rescue so far underground. Keeping the miners alive and in good spirits, much less getting them out, would be an enormous challenge.

Doctors from NASA and Chilean Navy officers with experience in submarines were consulted on the strains of prolonged confinement. The miners had lost considerable weight and were living off emergency rations. Some, like Mr. Gómez, who had a lung condition, struggled with the high humidity in the mine.

Medical officials consulted frequently with the miners over a modified telephone dropped down through the skinny borehole. Slowly, they nursed the men back to health. Health Minister Jaime Mañalich enlisted Yonny Barrios, a miner who had once taken a first aid course, to administer vaccines and medicines, and to take blood and urine samples. All the medications traveled down through the plastic tubes sent through the boreholes.

The tubes, called “palomas” here, became the miners’ lifeline. Over the many weeks, officials on the surface used them to send letters from loved ones, food and liquids, even a small video projection system that the miners used to watch recorded movies and live soccer matches on a television feed that was piped down.

The miners were put on a diet to keep their weight down and worked with a trainer to keep fit with exercise. One miner, a fitness buff, ran about six miles a day through the winding shafts of the mine.

In recent weeks, Alejandro Pino, the regional manager of an insurance company for work-related accidents, has given the miners media training on how to speak and express themselves, even sending a rolled-up copy of his guidebook through the borehole.

“I tried to prepare them to handle journalists’ most intimate questions,” Mr. Pino said last week.

Alberto Iturra, a psychologist who worked with the miners, talked to them, sometimes several times a day, to sort through their frustrations and depression. After first sending down nicotine patches, officials later sent down cigarettes to the miners, most of whom were smokers, family members said. Still, Dr. Iturra said that doctors never ended up sending down medication for depression.

As doctors struggled to keep the miners healthy, engineers were hard at work digging a bigger hole through which the miners could be pulled to safety. Mr. Piñera was not satisfied with one option, so he set in motion three efforts to drill a successful rescue hole: Plans A, B and C.

Finally, last Saturday at 8:05 a.m., the Plan B drilling rig broke through to the exuberant miners. Each rescue is expected to take about an hour, including the time it takes to drop the capsule into the hole.

Even as the miners themselves are mythologized here for surviving their subterranean captivity, others on the surface are benefiting. Mr. Golborne, a former chief executive of a retail store chain who has no political party affiliation, has become Chile’s most popular minister. He spends many evenings roaming Camp Hope in his red windbreaker, playing cards with miners’ families and kicking a ball around with children.

“Golborne is the new Bachelet,” said Marta Lagos, a political analyst in Santiago, referring to Michelle Bachelet, the popular former president. “He emerged into the public view out of nothing. This is a man that says he has no political ambition and is not interested in politics. Bachelet used to say the same thing.”
Source: The New York Times

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