Chile Rejoices as Miners Taste Freedom
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|Wed, 10-13-2010 - 9:45am|
At last some of the miners are rescued!!!!
SAN JOSÉ MINE, Chile — With anxious anticipation increasingly yielding to exuberant celebration, the haggard men trapped under a half-mile of rock for more than two months have been emerging to the arms of their families and an electrified nation.
Some 10 hours into the final phase of the rescue operation, the 11th miner stepped from the escape capsule to rapturous cheers. The Chilean president, Sebastián Piñera, was on hand to embrace the earliest arrivals in their first electrifying moments of freedom. On Wednesday morning, he moved to the makeshift hospital, chatting like a triumphant father with ever-growing group of rescued men.
The Bolivian president, Evo Morales, joined him to welcome the sole Bolivian miner, Carlos Mamani.
After the first 10 men were pulled up, Health Minister Jaime Mañalich said the next men to be raised would include those in a more “precarious” health condition.
He also said that all 33 miners might be lifted from the mine in less time than the original forecast of two days.
Cameras inside the mine showed the remaining miners sending off the next evacuee with cheers, and another positioned on the top of the capsule carried images of a seemingly smooth shaft slipping by the taut metal cable.
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.
Still, 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.
Mr. Piñera, a billionaire businessman who is Latin America’s most conservative leader, staked his presidency on the effort. 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.
In the early minutes of Wednesday at the mine site (late Tuesday night Eastern time), the first miner was pulled through the narrow, twisting escape shaft in the specially designed capsule called the Phoenix, paving the way to the end of a drama that has riveted the world for two months. The 33 trapped miners, caught in a collapse on Aug. 5, spent 17 days in isolation, rationing their meager supplies and organizing themselves before being located by drillers on Aug. 22.
They had to withstand nearly two more months of waiting for this day. Their discipline and collaboration held firm, and they worked doggedly to help the rescue effort themselves, with a determination and spirit that captivated and inspired their nation.
The first miner, Florencia Ávalos, 31, made it to the surface shortly after midnight, to the music of blaring celebratory horns. With a look of sturdy calm, he embraced his weeping child and other family members, his nation’s president and the workers around him before being taken away on a stretcher, lifting his thumb triumphantly.
As each subsequent miner emerged alive and smiling, the world seemed to celebrate, but also to hold its collective breath that all 33 would make it out as effortlessly as the first ones.
The second miner to reach the surface, Mario 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,” a refrain echoed as subsequent miners reached the surface.
Flanked by his family at a news conference afterward, Mr. Sepúlveda acknowledged the stress of spending 69 days underground.
“I’ve been near God, but I’ve also been near the devil,” he said through a translator. “God won.”
A global audience watched nonstop coverage on computers, television sets and even cellphones. Deep in the mine, the remaining miners waited for their turn, along with a rescue worker who descended to their underground haven in the capsule, which was painted with the red, white and blue of the Chilean flag.
Tuesday was a day of great excitement and last-minute delays. As Mr. 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 the makeshift tent city near the mine, which 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.
“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 perfectly 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 the Aug. 5 cave-in trapped the miners, their fate was uncertain at best. Advisers to Mr. Piñera counseled him not to raise expectations that the men 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 of the mine disaster broke, 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.