More Chilean miners freed in 'miracle' rescue

Twelve of Chile’s 33 trapped miners were hoisted to safety in a capsule barely wider than a man’s shoulders on Wednesday, cheering, punching the air and hugging their families after two months deep underground.

“This is a miracle from God,” said Alberto Avalos, the first rescued miner’s elated uncle, who rushed to the rescue capsule as it arrived on the surface.

As the sun rose over the gold and copper mine in Chile’s northern Atacama desert, nine men had been liberated from the abyss in a methodical rescue operation in which the first miner was brought to the surface shortly after midnight.

Rescuers, relatives and friends broke into jubilant cheers as the miners, one by one, emerged from the mine. Florencio Avalos, a father of two, was the first to emerge to breathe his first fresh air in 69 days after a claustrophobic ascent of about 625 metres through rock.

Hugged and kissed by relatives, the 31-year-old Avalos looked very healthy following a nearly 16-minute journey to safety. He was then embraced by President Sebastián Piñera as the surrounding crowd chanted “Chile! Viva Chile!”


Chilean miner Juan Illanes is taken to a triage area of a field hospital after he was the third to be rescued at the San Jose mine.
(Reuters)

Next up was fellow miner Mario Sepulveda, whose whoops of joy resounded on the surface even before he arrived to the laughs of waiting relatives. He stepped out of the capsule with a yellow bag, reached in and pulled out souvenir rocks from below, and slapped one in Piñera’s hand.

“I’m so happy!” Sepulveda yelled, grinning, punching his fist in the air and hugging everyone in sight. However, he also sounded a darkly serious note.

God and the devil
“I have been with God and I’ve been with the devil,” he later said in an interview, calling for deep change to protect workers rights.

Then came Juan Illanes, who called the trip to the surface a “cruise”. Each of the men wore dark glasses to protect their eyes after spending so long in the dimly lit tunnel below.

Like wives on the surface who had their hair and nails done for the occasion, the men looked groomed and clean-shaven.

The miners have spent a record 69 days in the hot, humid bowels of the gold and copper mine in Chile’s northern Atacama desert since it caved in on August 5. Rescuers expect to bring all the remaining men to safety over the next two days.

For the first 17 days of their ordeal, the miners were all believed to be dead. Their story of survival and the extraordinary rescue operation have captured the world’s attention.


Relatives of Bolivian miner Carlos Mamani react to his rescue in Copiapo. (Reuters)

After weeks of drilling a narrow shaft down to the miners and preparing the special capsules, the final stage began when a rescuer descended the shaft on Tuesday night. He was hugged by the waiting miners when he reached their tunnel deep in the mine, and he then took just minutes to buckle Avalos into the capsule and send him to the surface.

The men, who set a new record for the length of time workers have survived underground after a mining accident, have been exercising to keep their weight down for their ascent.

Nervous wives, children, parents and friends waited on an arid, rocky hillside above the San Jose mine waiting for the men to be evacuated.

The specially made steel cages are equipped with oxygen masks and escape hatches in case they get stuck.

Rescuers were finally able to deploy the capsule, dubbed Phoenix, after reinforcing part of the narrow escape shaft with metal casing to prevent rocks from falling and blocking the exit.

Engineers said the final stage of the rescue still has its risks but that the capsule was handling well in the shaft, and they expected a smooth extraction.

Each man’s journey to safety should take about 15 minutes. The capsule travels at about one metre per second, or a casual walking pace, and can speed to three metres per second if the miner being carried gets into trouble.

The miners can communicate with rescue teams using an intercom in the capsule. They will then be under observation at a nearby hospital for two days.

Rescuers originally found the men, miraculously all alive, 17 days after the mine’s collapse with a borehole the width of grapefruit. It then served as an umbilical cord used to pass hydration gels, water and food, as well as letters from their families and soccer videos to keep their spirits up.

Medics say some of the men are psychologically fragile and may struggle with stress for a long time after their rescue.

Piñera ordered an overhaul of Chile’s mine safety regulations after the accident.

Media scrum
Sadly, the elation of some of 31-year-old Avalos’s family members turned to horror when a media scrum trampled their humble tent in a mad rush to secure that all-important interview.

Avalos’s father Alfonso, tears running down his face, had just exclaimed: “It’s a huge joy. I’m so happy” and hugged his wife Maria Silva when things turned ugly.

Reporters pushed and shoved to be the first to interview them, pulling on the hair of those in the way, throwing punches and almost knocking others to the ground.

The chaos and jostling marred the celebrations as the news workers rushed forward as one to capture the historic moment and surrounded the tent on all sides in walls of cameras and journalists.

The family retreated, and a frightened-looking Maria angrily hit out at journalists close to her with the Chilean flag bunched in her hand.

The mayhem stood out in an otherwise festive occasion in which families and reporters alike shared the euphoria of seeing the miners emerging one by one from the earth.

Winners, losers
The accident shone a spotlight on lax mining controls in the world’s top copper producer, but also highlighted a mature industry that has the machinery and expertise to handle one of the world’s most challenging rescues.

Here are the winners and losers in a saga that has attracted worldwide attention.

Winners

  • Piñera has seen his popularity surge since the miners were found alive following a sloppy start with a series of government fumbles that enraged relatives of the men and the public watching the drama. The self-made billionaire is likely to benefit from his renewed popularity as he seeks to pass controversial legislation that hikes taxes on foreign mining companies operating in the country.

  • State-run Codelco and private miners have had some free publicity with the months-long operation to free the miners. Codelco, the world’s top copper producer, has led the rescue, showing expertise and resources that could strengthen views among Chileans that the mining company should remain completely in state hands. Piñera and his government have floated the idea of selling part of Codelco to boost efficiency and cut costs. Private engineering firms and drillers have also had their 15 minutes of fame with around-the-clock television exposure.
  • Union leaders believe the San Jose accident helped boost the image of miners who were increasingly considered privileged employees with high wages and hefty bonuses, according to previous opinion polls. They said the Chilean public is now more aware of the dangers miners face in the workplace and why they should be paid more. Miners in Chile are some of the best paid in Latin America, with cash bonuses linked to new contracts that could reach over $25 000 per employee at larger companies. An improved image could help unions exert pressure on employers if upcoming wage negotiations turn ugly. Some of the world’s top copper mines, Collahuasi and Radomiro Tomic, are negotiating new contracts due later this year.

Losers

  • Chile mining regulators proved unprepared for the accident, which shocked the mining nation and prompted Piñera to fire the chief regulator. The accident unveiled the underbelly of an industry long thought to be safe for employees. Piñera has introduced legislation to revamp the regulator, increasing their budget across the mineral-rich Atacama desert.
  • Small- and medium-sized mines have felt the fallout of the accident as the government moved rapidly to close dozens of tiny deposits across the country over safety conditions. Investors in those mines accuse the government of carrying out a witch hunt to cover up previous shortcomings that led to the San Jose deposit accident. Although production from those mines is likely to decline, it is very unlikely it could hurt world supply as the bulk of production is done by larger companies that spend big to comply with international safety standards. Authorities could face lawsuits by the miners and their relatives for failing to properly inspect the mine and avoid the cave-in that trapped the men underground.
  • The mine’s owners, local private company Compania Minera San Esteban Primera, are blamed by the public, miners and many officials for the accident. The firm is currently undergoing an internal audit of its assets and debt to determine if it should declare bankruptcy. The mine, which is more than 100 years old, had a long history of accidents that killed and seriously injured many miners in recent years. Feeble wooden planks were used to reinforce the walls of the deposit instead of sturdier steel columns. It also took the mine owners hours to inform authorities about the accident, saying they first had to evaluate the situation. Miners’ relatives have already filed suit against the company, asking for a total of around $10-million while local prosecutors are mulling criminal charges against the owners.
  • - Reuters, AFP

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