Wednesday, October 13, 2010
Country Rejoices as Chilean Miners Are Brought to Freedom - NYTimes.com
SAN JOSÉ MINE, Chile — Two months, nine days, and eight hours after their excruciating ordeal began, the last of the 33 miners trapped in an apartment-sized hole a half mile under Chile was delivered safely to the earth’s surface, capping one of the most dramatic survival stories in mining history.
With the entire nation rapt and much of the world riveted, the last miner, Luis Urzua, rose smoothly out of the small hole in the ground, prompting an eruption of applause and cheers that seemed just as heartfelt as the outpouring that followed the emergence of the first miner nearly a day earlier.
The sight of the miner’s face — wearing sleek sunglasses to protect his fragile eyes from UV rays — brought a joyous end to an operation that began under grim circumstances in early August, when the mine caved in. For more than two weeks after the collapse, rescuers had no contact with the miners and could not be sure they were even alive. But by late evening here, the precarious mission to hoist the miners to safety had moved along so efficiently that it was clear it would end far ahead of schedule.
For 22 hours, the miners emerged at regular intervals in a pageant that has moved a worldwide audience — watching on television, on computers, even on mobile phones — to tears and laughter.
The second miner to reach the surface, Mario Sepúlveda, left the rescue capsule in a kind of victory dance, hugging family members and officials. He embraced the Chilean president, Sebastián Piñera, three times and presented people with gifts: rocks from the mine. He punched fists with the crowd and led a cheer: “Chi, Chi, Chi, le, le, le,” they shouted. “Miners of Chile!” The refrain echoed as subsequent miners reached the surface.
“I’ve been near God, but I’ve also been near the devil,” Mr. Sepúlveda said through a translator. “God won.”
The 12th miner — Edison Peña, 34, known for running miles in the mine tunnels every day — stepped from the escape capsule to rapturous cheers and the embrace of his girlfriend, and then another from Mr. Piñera.
“Thank God we’re alive,” Mr. Peña said. “I know now why we’re alive.”
Laurence Golborne, the mining minister, praised the rescue operation at an afternoon briefing on Wednesday, saying that officials were able to cut the time down between miners rescued from an hour to 45 minutes.
After the miners were pulled out, there were six rescue workers still left down in the mine, and they were to be pulled out next, Mr. Golborne said.
Mr. Golborne said the most difficult rescue was that of Mario Gómez, 63, the oldest miner in the group, who had struggled with a lung condition. “We took additional precautions in this case, but he’s fine,” Mr. Golborne said. Mr. Gomez was the ninth man rescued. “Maybe we overdid it, but it’s better to do more than less.”
Jaime Mañalich, the health minister, said one patient was suffering from acute pneumonia and two others had dental infections requiring surgery, but that 17 of the first 20 miners rescued were in conditions that were “more than satisfactory.” To respect the privacy of the miners, he said he would not reveal the identity of the sick.
Mr. Mañalich said that two medical rescue workers were sent down to the mine, one to focus exclusively on the patient with pneumonia and to start him on a course of antibiotics. “He is now better than he was a couple of days ago,” he said. “If all goes well, at the very maximum, he should stay at the hospital through this weekend.”
Cameras inside the mine showed the miners sending off an evacuee with cheers, and another camera positioned on the top of the capsule carried images of a seemingly smooth shaft slipping by around a taut metal cable as a winch pulled the capsule 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.
The San Jose mine — which produced copper and gold — collapsed on Aug. 5, leaving 33 men unaccounted for. After 17 days of frantic drilling, rescuers made contact. What they found captivated the world — all the men had survived with their spirits apparently intact.
They had to withstand nearly two more months of waiting for this day, hanging firm to discipline and collaboration held firm in the lightless, dank space. Their perseverance has transfixed the globe with a universal story of human struggle and the enormously complex operation to rescue them.