Miners rescued from 2,000ft raise the spirits of the world


EYEWITNESS: The rescue operation is proceeding at twice the pace originally predicted, writes TOM HENNIGANin Copiapó, Chile

CHILE’S AUTHORITIES were hopeful that the rescue of the 33 miners trapped underground for a record 10 weeks could be concluded by early today Irish time after a euphoric day which saw rescuers bring men up to the surface at regular intervals.

As of 9pm Irish time yesterday 21 men had been rescued, leaving just 12 in the cavern where they have taken refuge since the August 5th cave-in at the San José copper mine. Six rescuers are in the cavern with the men.

Speaking to reporters at the mine yesterday afternoon, Chile’s mining minister Laurence Golborne said the delicate task of winching the 33 men 622 metres to safety was proceeding ahead of schedule and could be concluded by midnight local time.

This would mean the operation taking just 24 hours, less than half the time authorities had originally forecast. Mr Golborne said the amount of time to lift each miner was diminishing and the rescue capsule was holding up better than expected, meaning fewer delays for running maintenance.

An emotion-filled day started shortly after midnight yesterday when 31-year-old Florencio Ávalos emerged from the mouth of the narrow rescue shaft to become the first miner rescued. Once freed from the metal capsule he was embraced by his tearful seven-year-old son Byron and his wife before being congratulated by rescuers and Chile’s president.

Despite his 10-week ordeal Mr Ávalos looked alert and in good health. He was quickly put on a trolley and rushed off to a medical centre set up at the mine where doctors carried out an initial examination.

Speaking shortly afterwards clearly delighted President Sibestián Piñera said “the embrace between Florencio, his wife and his son Byron will remain in the hearts of Chileans forever”.

The president has spent the day at the mine greeting the men as they emerge. “The great wealth of Chile is not copper, but our miners,” he said. Chile is the world’s biggest copper producer and the Atacama desert, location of the San José mine, is its main copper producing region.

Mr Ávalos and his colleagues have been trapped underground for longer than any other group following a mining accident. Relatives of the trapped men waiting for this moment at the nearby Campamento Esperanza cried and prayed as Mr Ávalos emerged from the ground. Across Chile crowds had gathered to watch the rescue and a chorus of car horns and fireworks commemorated its success.

An hour after Mr Ávalos emerged, a euphoric Mario Sepúlveda became the second miner to surface. He opened a bag he had brought with him and, cracking jokes, presented rocks from the bottom of the mine to rescuers before leading them in a chant of “Viva Chile!”

The fourth to emerge was Bolivian miner Carlos Mamani, who was greeted by his country’s president Evo Morales.

All the men surfaced looking remarkably unfazed by their 15-minute journey through the narrow shaft cut into sheer rock and barely wider than a man’s shoulders. The shaft has been reinforced but remains uneven in places and winching the capsule through it is described as a delicate process.

After being examined in the medical centre, groups of rescued men were flown at intervals to hospital in the regional capital of Copiapó. As each helicopter lifted off from the rescuers and relatives below cheered and waved.

The night’s operation started with rescuer Manuel González going down the shaft to the trapped miners just before midnight. Before heading down, Mr Piñera wished him luck and he was lowered to a rousing version of Chile’s national anthem by the team at the surface.

Fourteen minutes later video images relayed by the men underground showed Mr González arriving and the trapped miners having their first contact with the outside world since early August. Mostly wearing just shorts amid what are said to be sweltering conditions deep underground, they embraced their rescuer in front of a Chilean flag decorating their subterranean home. In a sign of the times, many of the trapped men seemed more interested in recording his arrival on phones and digital cameras than in embracing him.

In Chile “Los 33” have become national heroes, praised for their discipline, patience and good humour. Following the August 5th collapse that left them trapped they had to wait 17 days before rescue crews on the surface were able to make contact with them and confirm that all the missing men were alive and taking shelter in a cavern over half a kilometre from the surface.

This initial contact was made after drilling a 6cm hole using a drill head produced by Co Clare company Mincon. The bore hole allowed rescue crews to pass food and liquids to the miners while they developed three separate rescue plans. It was the so-called Plan B that started bringing the men to the surface.

US space agency Nasa advised the Chilean authorities on how to keep the men fit and emotionally well in the dark, confined space while the rescue shaft was being drilled. Yesterday Charles Bolden, head of Nasa, praised Chile’s “unbreakable determination” and “heroic efforts” to rescue its “valiant” men.

While waiting for rescue the men have had football games relayed to them and have spent their time reading the newspapers and playing dominos. MP3 players have also been lowered containing the men’s musical favourites, ranging from Colombian cumbia to The Doors, as well as Jim Carrey films and a marathon recording by Chilean comedians to keep the men’s spirits up.

The skill of the rescue operation, and the men’s fortitude, has been hugely inspirational for Chileans still recovering from February’s devastating 8.8 magnitude earthquake which left over 500 people dead and cast a shadow over the country’s bicentennial celebrations. The 33 men are each set to be honoured with the title Hero of the Bicentenary.