Chilean rescue workers hoisted into the desert the first 12 of 33 miners who were trapped underground for more than two months where they were greeted by their families and President Sebastian Pinera in an operation that gripped television viewers around the world.
The first miner, Florencio Avalos, emerged from the San Jose copper mine at 11:12 p.m. New York time after being trapped for 69 days in a tunnel more than 600 meters (1,970 feet) underground, according to a broadcast by state television channel TVN. The operation, overseen by Pinera in the Atacama desert, is scheduled to run another 24 hours.
“I am so overwhelmed with emotion because it’s been so long since we have seen him,” Avalos’s father Alfonso said in comments broadcast by TVN. “I am so content, so happy. Thank God that he emerged so strong.”
Avalos embraced his wife and son and President Pinera before being taken to a mobile hospital as rescuers shouted “Long Live Chile.” The second freed miner, Mario Sepulveda, joked with rescuers and Pinera. Mario Gomez, the oldest miner at 63, became the ninth man rescued. Alex Vega was the tenth.
The four-meter long “Phoenix” capsule painted in the red, white and blue colors of the Chilean flag is acting as an elevator, hoisting the miners to the surface through a 26-inch wide rescue hole. More than 1 billion people watched the rescue live on television networks around the world, TVN reported.
The rescue is going better than planned, Health Minister Jaime Manalich said in televised comments. The capsule hasn’t suffered any damage and will undergo maintenance after every eighth trip, he said. The first eight miners who ascended to the surface so far are in “good” health, Manalich said.
Embraces and Confetti
Families embraced and threw confetti at the mine site where they have camped for more than two months to await the rescue of the men. They had lit fires to fend off the cold. Police erected barricades to protect the families from hundreds of reporters.
The miners were discovered alive on Aug. 22 after being trapped since Aug. 5, when the mine’s access collapsed. The miners’ only contact with the outside world was through drill holes that were used to discover them and through which they receive food, water and medicine.
The survival of the San Jose miners surpasses a 25-day rescue of three coal miners in a flooded mine in Guizhou, China in 2009.
“Chileans and the entire world are not going to forget this night,” Pinera told the more than 1,000 reporters gathered at the mine site. “When Chile unites, and it always happens in adversity, we are capable of big things.”
Pinera said the San Jose mine will be converted into a national monument to reflect hope for future generations.
He wore the same red jacket he used in the aftermath of an 8.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Chile in February, and will stay near the rescue site alongside Bolivian counterpart, Evo Morales.
Pinera’s approval rating has increased since his government started the rescue operation more than two months ago, while Mining Minister Laurence Golborne has become the most popular member of the president’s cabinet.
Pinera’s popularity grew to 57 percent in September from 54 percent in a May poll, Santiago-based research group Center for the Study of Contemporary Reality, or CERC, said in a report published Oct. 7. The Sept. 3-13 poll of 1,200 people has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.
The miners are being split into three groups for the rescue. The first will provide information to rescuers and possibly help with the operation, Health Minister Jaime Manalich said. The weakest will then come out, followed by the rest. The last to be rescued will be shift foreman Luis Urzua.
“I’m nervous, my stomach is in knots,” Maria Segovia, the sister of trapped miner Dario Segovia, said in an interview at the site dubbed “Camp Hope.”
The 33 men were given meals rich in minerals and protein to prevent nausea and stabilize blood pressure during the ascent and examined remotely by medical officials on the surface. Ten have been identified by authorities as being the most in need of special care, Manalich said.
They’ll wear elastic bands on their lower extremities and a waistband during the 15- to 20-minute ascent that will help ensure proper blood circulation and prevent a reduction in arterial pressure and possible fainting, the health minister said. Rescue workers will supply the miners with emergency oxygen in case dust on the ascent causes breathing problems.
The miners wanted to wait until all 33 are brought to the surface so they can travel to the hospital as a group, the health minister said yesterday. Instead authorities are flying miners to hospital as soon as possible so they can undergo examinations and any necessary treatment, Manalich said.
“Miners are fighters,” said Mario Castillo, 39, who has worked to bring lighting and equipment to the rescue site during the past two months. “The big lesson from all of this is that we have to be united. This is for the world.”