Crowd erupts as miners surface

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By Michael Warren
Associated Press / October 13, 2010

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SAN JOSE MINE, Chile — The first three of 33 men trapped in a collapsed mine were rescued early today after 69 days underground, pulled to fresh air and freedom at last in a missile-like escape capsule to the cheers of family and countrymen.

Rescued first was Florencio Avalos, who wore a helmet and sunglasses to protect him from the glare of bright lights. He smiled broadly as he emerged and hugged his sobbing 7-year-old son, Bairon, and wife, then bear-hugged President Sebastián Piñera and rescuers.

A second miner, Mario Sepulveda Espina, was pulled to the surface about an hour later. He jubilantly handed souvenir rocks to laughing rescuers.

Third was 52-year-old Juan Illanes, a former soldier who urged his fellow miners to be disciplined and organized while stuck a half-mile underground. He hugged his wife and then climbed onto his cot, smiling broadly as he was wheeled away.

Avalos, 31, the second in command of the miners, was chosen to be first because he is in the best condition. He has been so shy that he volunteered to handle the camera rescuers sent down so he wouldn’t appear on the videos sent up.

Piñera described how lovely it was to see Avalos’s sons greet their father, especially young Bairon. “I told Florencio that few times have I ever seen a son show so much love for his father.’’

“This won’t be over until all 33 are out,’’ Piñera added. “Hopefully the spirit of these miners will remain forever with us.’’

Earlier, mine rescue specialist Manuel Gonzalez of the state copper company Codelco grinned and made the sign of the cross as he was lowered to the trapped men — apparently without incident. He was followed by Roberto Ros, a paramedic with the Chilean Navy’s special forces. Together they will prepare the miners for their rescue — expected to take as many as 36 hours.

“We made a promise to never surrender, and we kept it,’’ Piñera said as he waited to greet the miners, whose endurance and unity captivated the world as Chile meticulously prepared their rescue.

The last miner out has been decided: Shift foreman Luis Urzua, whose leadership was credited for helping the men endure 17 days with no outside contact after the collapse. The men made 48 hours’ worth of rations last before rescuers reached them with a narrow borehole to send down more food.

Janette Marin, sister-in-law of miner Dario Segovia, said the order of rescue didn’t matter. “This won’t be a success unless they all get out,’’ she said, echoing the solidarity that the miners and people across Chile have expressed.

The paramedics can change the order of rescue based on a brief medical check once they’re in the mine. First out will be those best able to handle any difficulties and tell their comrades what to expect. Then, the weakest and the ill — in this case, about 10 suffer from hypertension, diabetes, dental or respiratory infections, and skin lesions from the mine’s oppressive humidity. The last should be both physically and mentally fit.

Chile has taken extensive precautions to ensure the miners’ privacy, using a screen to block the top of the shaft from more than 1,000 journalists.

The miners will be ushered through an inflatable tunnel to an ambulance for a trip of several hundred yards to a triage station for a medical check. They will gather with relatives in an area also closed to the media, before being taken to a hospital.

Each ride up the shaft was expected to take about 20 minutes, and authorities expected they could haul up one miner per hour. When the last man surfaces, it promises to end a national crisis that began when 700,000 tons of rock collapsed Aug. 5, sealing the miners into the mine’s lower reaches.

The only media allowed to record them coming out of the shaft will be a government photographer and Chile’s state TV channel, whose live broadcast will be delayed by 30 seconds or more to prevent the release of anything unexpected. Photographers and camera operators are on a platform more than 300 feet away.

The worst technical problem that could happen, rescue coordinator Andre Sougarett said, is that “a rock could fall,’’ potentially jamming the capsule in the shaft.

Panic attacks are the rescuers’ biggest concern. The miners will not be sedated; they need to be alert in case something goes wrong. If a miner must get out more quickly, rescuers will accelerate the capsule to a maximum of about 3 yards per second, Health Minister Jaime Manalich said.

The rescue is risky simply because no one else has ever tried to extract miners from such depths, said Davitt McAteer, who directed the Mine Safety and Health Administration in the Clinton administration. A miner could get claustrophobic and damage the capsule. Or the cable could get hung up. Or the rig that pulls the cable could overheat.

“You can be good and you can be lucky. And they’ve been good and lucky,’’ McAteer said. “Knock on wood that this luck holds out for the next 33 hours.’’

Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said authorities had thought of everything.

“There is no need to try to start guessing what could go wrong. We have done that job,’’ Golborne said. “We have hundreds of different contingencies.’’

As for the miners, Manalich said, “It remains a paradox — they’re actually much more relaxed than we are.’’

Rescuers finished reinforcing the top of the 2,041-foot escape shaft Monday, and the 13-foot capsule descended flawlessly in tests.

The capsule — the biggest of three built by Chilean Navy engineers — was named Phoenix for the mythical bird that rises from ashes.

The miners were to be closely monitored from the moment they’re strapped in the capsule. They were given a high-calorie liquid diet donated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, designed to keep them from vomiting as the capsule rotates 10 to 12 times through curves in the 28-inchdiameter escape hole.

A video camera watched for panic attacks. The miners were wearing oxygen masks and have two-way voice communication. Their pulse, skin temperature, and respiration were being measured.

President Obama praised the rescuers, who include many Americans. “While that rescue is far from over and difficult work remains, we pray that by God’s grace, the miners will be able to emerge safely and return to their families soon,’’ Obama said.


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