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Oct 13, 2010 7:16 PM by Letitia Walker

29 Miners Freed

SAN JOSE MINE, Chile (AP) - With remarkable speed - and flawless
execution - miner after miner climbed into a cramped cage deep
beneath the Chilean earth, was hoisted through 2,000 feet of rock
and saw precious sunlight Wednesday after the longest underground
entrapment in history.
As night fell, 29 of the 33 miners, including the weakest and
sickest, had been pulled to freedom, and officials appeared on
track to pull up the last miner well before midnight (11 p.m. EDT).
After 69 days underground, including two weeks during which they
were feared dead, the men emerged to the cheers of exuberant
Chileans and before the eyes of a transfixed globe. The operation
picked up speed as the day went on, but each miner was greeted with
the same boisterous applause from rescuers.
"Welcome to life," President Sebastian Pinera told Victor
Segvia, the 15th miner out. On a day of superlatives, it seemed no
overstatement.
They rejoined a world intensely curious about their ordeal, and
certain to offer fame and jobs. Previously unimaginable riches
awaited men who had risked their lives going into the unstable gold
and copper mine for about $1,600 a month.
The miners made the smooth ascent inside a capsule called
Phoenix - 13 feet tall, barely wider than their shoulders and
painted in the white, blue and red of the Chilean flag. It had a
door that stuck occasionally, and its wheels needed lubricating at
least once, but it worked exactly as planned.
Beginning at midnight Tuesday, and sometimes as quickly as every
25 minutes, the pod was lowered the nearly half-mile to where
700,000 tons of rock collapsed Aug. 5 and entombed the men.
Then, after a quick pep talk from rescue workers who had
descended into the mine, a miner would strap himself in, make the
journey upward and emerge from a manhole into the blinding sun.
The rescue was planned with extreme care. The miners were
monitored by video on the way up for any sign of panic. They had
oxygen masks, dark glasses to protect their eyes from unfamiliar
light and sweaters for the jarring transition from subterranean
swelter to chilly desert air.
As they neared the surface, a camera attached to the top of the
capsule showed a brilliant white piercing the darkness not unlike
what accident survivors describe when they have near-death
experiences.
The miners emerged looking healthier than many had expected and
even clean-shaven. Several thrust their fists upwards like
prizefighters, and Mario Sepulveda, the second to taste freedom,
bounded out and led his rescuers in a rousing cheer.
"We have prayed to San Lorenzo, the patron saint of miners, and
to many other saints so that my brothers Florencio and Renan would
come out of the mine all right. It is as if they had been born
again," said Priscila Avalos. One of her brothers was the first
miner rescued, and the other was due out later in the evening.
Health Minister Jaime Manalich said some of the miners probably
will be able to leave the hospital Thursday - earlier than
projected - but many had been unable to sleep, wanted to talk with
families and were anxious. One was treated for pneumonia, and two
needed dental work.
"They are not ready to have a moment's rest until the last of
their colleagues is out," he said.
As it traveled down and up, down and up, the rescue capsule was
not rotating as much inside the 2,041-foot escape shaft as
officials expected, allowing for faster trips.
The first man out was Florencio Avalos, who emerged from the
missile-like chamber and hugged his sobbing 7-year-old son, his
wife and the Chilean president.
The last out was slated to be shift foreman Luis Urzua, whose
leadership was credited with helping the men endure the first two
and a half weeks without outside contact. The men made 48 hours'
worth of rations last before rescuers reached them with a narrow
bore hole to send down more food.
No one in recorded history has survived as long trapped
underground. For the first 17 days, no one even knew whether they
were alive. In the weeks that followed, the world was captivated by
their endurance and unity.
Chile exploded in joy and relief when the rescue began just
after midnight in the coastal Atacama desert. Car horns sounded in
Santiago, the Chilean capital, and school was canceled in the
nearby town of Copiapo, where 24 of the miners live.
News channels from North America to Europe and the Middle East
carried live coverage. Pope Benedict XVI said in Spanish that he
"continues with hope to entrust to God's goodness" the fate of
the men. Iran's state English-language Press TV followed events
live for a time. Crews from Russia and Japan and North Korean state
TV were at the mine.
The images beamed to the world were extraordinary: Grainy
footage from beneath the earth showed each miner climbing into
capsule, then disappearing upward through an opening. Then a camera
showed the pod steadily rising through the dark, smooth-walled
tunnel.
Among the first rescued was the youngest miner, Jimmy Sanchez,
at 19 the father of a months-old baby. Two hours later came the
oldest, Mario Gomez, 63, who suffers from a lung disease common to
miners and had been on antibiotics inside the mine. He dropped to
his knees after he emerged, bowed his head in prayer and clutched
the Chilean flag.
Gomez's wife, Liliane Ramirez, pulled him up from the ground and
embraced him. The couple had talked over video chat once a week,
and she said that he had repeated the promise he made to her in his
initial letter from inside the mine: He would marry her properly in
a church wedding, followed by the honeymoon they never had.
The lone foreigner among them, Carlos Mamani of Bolivia, was
visited at a nearby clinic by Pinera and Bolivian President Evo
Morales. The miner could be heard telling the Chilean president how
nice it was to breathe fresh air and see the stars.
Most of the men emerged clean-shaven. More than 300 people at
the mine alone had worked on the rescue or to sustain them during
their long wait by lowering rocket-shaped tubes dubbed "palomas,"
Spanish for carrier pigeons. Along with the food and medicine came
razors and shaving cream.
Estimates for the rescue operation alone have soared beyond $22
million, though the government has repeatedly insisted that money
is not a concern.
The men emerged in good health. But at the hospital in Copiapo,
where miner after miner walked from the ambulance to a waiting
wheelchair, it became clear that psychological issues would be as
important to treat as physical ones.
Dr. Guillermo Swett said Sepulveda told him about an internal
"fight with the devil" that he had inside the mine. He said
Sanchez appeared to be having a hard time adjusting, and seemed
depressed.
"He spoke very little and didn't seem to connect," the doctor
said.
The entire rescue operation was meticulously choreographed. No
expense was spared in bringing in topflight drillers and equipment
- and boring three separate holes into the copper and gold mine.
Mining is Chile's lifeblood, providing 40 percent of state
earnings, and Pinera put his mining minister and the operations
chief of state-owned Codelco, the country's biggest company, in
charge of the rescue.
It went so well that its managers abandoned a plan to restrict
images of the rescue. A huge Chilean flag that was to obscure the
hole from view was moved aside so the hundreds of cameras perched
on a hill above could record images that state TV also fed live.
That included the surreal moment when the capsule dropped for
the first time into the chamber, where the bare-chested miners,
most stripped down to shorts because of the underground heat,
mobbed the rescuer who emerged to serve as their guide to freedom.
"This rescue operation has been so marvelous, so clean, so
emotional that there was no reason not to allow the eyes of the
world - which have been watching this operation so closely - to see
it," a beaming Pinera told a news conference after Avalos was
brought to the surface.
The miners' vital signs were closely monitored throughout the
ride. They were given a high-calorie liquid diet donated by NASA,
designed to prevent nausea from any rotation of the capsule as it
travels through curves in the 28-inch-diameter escape hole.
Engineers inserted steel piping at the top of the shaft, which
is angled 11 degrees off vertical before plunging like a waterfall.
Drillers had to curve the shaft to pass through "virgin" rock,
narrowly avoiding collapsed areas and underground open spaces in
the overexploited mine, which had operated since 1885.
U.S. President Barack Obama said the rescue had "inspired the
world." The crews included many Americans, including a driller
operator from Denver and a team from Center Rock Inc. of Berlin,
Pa., that built and managed the piston-driven hammers that pounded
the hole through quartz and silica, some of the hardest and most
abrasive rock there is.
Chile has promised that its care of the miners won't end for six
months at least - not until they can be sure that each man has
readjusted.
Psychiatrists and other experts in surviving extreme situations
predict their lives will be anything but normal. Since Aug. 22,
when a narrow bore hole broke through to their refuge and the
miners stunned the world with a note, scrawled in red ink,
disclosing their survival, their families have been exposed in ways
they never imagined.
Miners had to describe their physical and mental health in
detail with teams of doctors and psychologists. In some cases, when
both wives and lovers claimed the same man, everyone involved had
to face the consequences.
As trying as their time underground was, the miners now face
challenges so bewildering that no amount of coaching can fully
prepare them. Rejoining a world intensely curious about their
ordeal, they have been invited to presidential palaces, to take
all-expenses-paid vacations and to appear on countless TV shows.
Book and movie deals are pending, along with job offers.
Sepulveda's performance exiting from the shaft appeared to
confirm what many Chileans thought when they saw his engaging
performances in videos sent up from below - that he could have a
future as a TV personality.
But he tried to quash the idea as he spoke to viewers of Chile's
state television channel while sitting with his wife and children
shortly after his rescue.
"The only thing I'll ask of you is that you don't treat me as
an artist or a journalist, but as a miner," he said. "I was born
a miner and I'll die a miner."

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