October 13, 2010


[The ordeal has also riveted Bolivia, home to one of the miners, 24-year-old Carlos Mamani, who kissed his wife, Veronica, and shouted: "Gracias, Chile!" The Bolivian president, Evo Morales, joined Mr. Piñera in welcoming Mr. Mamani, and chatting with the ever-growing rescued group in the makeshift hospital. It was a rare moment of rapprochement for the two leaders, whose nations have strained relations.]
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 perhaps the most dramatic survival story 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.
The final rescue capped a dramatic, months-long ordeal. 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.
Mr. Piñera, a billionaire businessman who is one of Latin America’s most conservative leaders, 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.
The ordeal has also riveted Bolivia, home to one of the miners, 24-year-old Carlos Mamani, who kissed his wife, Veronica, and shouted: "Gracias, Chile!" The Bolivian president, Evo Morales, joined Mr. Piñera in welcoming Mr. Mamani, and chatting with the ever-growing rescued group in the makeshift hospital. It was a rare moment of rapprochement for the two leaders, whose nations have strained relations.
“I would like to thank the Chilean people, thank you very much for rescuing our brother, Carlos Mamami,” Mr. Morales said. “Bolivia will never forget, this is a historical moment, and this unites us more every day. These events are fostering greater trust between Bolivia and Chile.”
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 — the Phoenix.
The first miner, Florencio 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 as all 33 seemed to make it out as effortlessly as the first ones.
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 in the red, white and blue of the Chilean flag.
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 Mr. 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.
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. Mr. Mañalich, the health minister, 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.
Maria Newman and Liz Robbins contributed reporting from New York.
The New York Times

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