Stepping into the glare of arc lights for their first fresh air in 10 weeks, the 33 men in wraparound sunglasses resembled rock stars more than once-desperate rock diggers who cheated death.
One by one, Chile’s newest heroes emerged from a hellish confinement to roars of applause and came face to face with their loved ones, their national leaders and the camera lens of a world intoxicated by their sensational and uplifting story.
When Luis Urzua, the grizzled leader of “the 33” who had been trapped in the bowels of the San Jose mine, finally emerged looking cool and collected, an emotional President Sebastián Piñera signaled a dramatic conclusion to their 69-day ordeal.
“I’m taking over your shift, and I congratulate you for fulfilling your duty, for leaving last like a ship’s captain,” Piñera told Urzua, the shift foreman whose leadership was credited with helping the men survive.
“We have done what the entire world was waiting for,” Urzua responded.
Thirty-three balloons in the red, white and blue of Chile’s national flag, floated free into the night sky above the mine at the moment Urzua was brought to the surface.
The shiny globes, scudding across a crescent moon late on Wednesday night, symbolised the liberation of the men trapped for a record 69 days, and the soaring pride Chileans felt in their nation.
Cheeks glistened with tears as the miners’ relatives in Camp Hope, the collection of tents at the entrance to the San Jose mine, watched the balloons rise.
Then families and rescuers alike burst into the national anthem, singing along with Urzua, whose shoulders were draped with a Chilean flag, and Piñera.
Later, relatives streamed up a hill overlooking the rescue shaft to pay homage to the rescuers and give thanks for the “miracle” of having their loved ones back in their embrace.
Relatives of Bolivian miner Carlos Mamani react to his rescue in Copiapo. (Reuters)
But the job was not yet done. The six rescuers who guided the miners to freedom remained 622m underground.
While the world cheered, the rescuers below unfurled a banner which brought celebrations to a frenzy: “Mision cumplida CHILE,” it read. Mission accomplished.
More than two hours later, the final rescuer, Manuel Gonzalez, climbed into the capsule, but not before turning to the camera and waving. He clasped his hands, brought them to his lips, then raised them skyward.
Moments later he was shuttling to the surface, leaving the world’s transfixed viewers staring for several curious seconds at the now-lifeless shelter that so easily could have been the miners’ tomb.
When Gonzalez emerged early on Thursday, Piñera poignantly clanged a black metal cover over the escape hole, bringing the dramatic operation — all 24 hours and 22 minutes of it — to an end.
In the nearby town of Copiapo, the central plaza was packed with thousands cheering the rescue before huge TV screens.
“Our 33 children have emerged from our Earth!” cried Mildred Bravo as a raucous crowd rang bells and blew whistles for a cacophonous celebration.
“I went to the World Cup in South Africa. But this is Chile’s real world championship,” said Raul Palma, teary-eyed and hoarse from yelling. “I’ve been celebrating for 48 hours without sleep.”
The final moments of rescue capped a day of vivid images shared by a world mesmerized by Chile’s real-life tale of heroism and ingenuity.
From the very first minutes of Wednesday when the first miner Florencio Avalos appeared, to the late-night emergence of Urzua, the day was punctuated every half hour or so a miner’s arrival, cocooned in the capsule dubbed the Phoenix, the mythic bird that rose from ashes.
“They were experiencing a kind of rebirth,” Piñera told Chileans immediately after Urzua’s ascent, adding that he believed the operation was “inspiring … for the whole world.”
Given the divine overtones lent to the rescue by the miners, who had fervently prayed in the dark for a miracle, it was no surprise that they gave very Catholic thanks once they reached the surface.
They fell to their knees to pray, made the sign of a crucifix, showed off shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Thank You, Lord.”
One brought a Bible up with him. Another’s blue helmet bore a scrawled message: “God lives.”
But they also expressed gratitude to the human architects of their salvation, the political leaders and engineers who drilled the narrow escape shaft and conceived the Phoenix capsule.
As the miners awoke to their new lives on Thursday, they were greeted in hospital in Copiapo by Piñera, who said the miners will play a football match this month against officials who helped rescue them.
“The winners will get La Moneda [the presidential palace],” Pinera joked, “and the losers will have to go back into the mine.”
Timeline — the trapped Chilean miners’ two-month ordeal
August 5 — A cave-in leaves 33 miners trapped about 625m vertically underground in a small copper-and-gold mine near the northern Chilean city of Copiapo, 800km north of Santiago.
The mine’s owner, local private company Compania Minera San Esteban Primera, notifies authorities several hours later, saying they first had to evaluate the situation.
August 6 — Mining Minister Laurence Golborne cuts short a visit to Ecuador and flies back to Chile to lead the rescue effort in Copiapo. Mine authorities pin their hopes on the possibility the trapped miners have reached a shelter where oxygen, water and food had been stored.
August 7 — Rescue workers, who began descending toward the shelter via a ventilation shaft on August 6, are forced to abandon that route when a fresh cave-in blocks the duct.
President Piñera cuts short his visit to Colombia and returns to Chile to be with family members of the trapped miners at a temporary camp set up outside the mine.
August 8 — Rescue workers begin drilling bore-holes 12 cm in diameter into the mine to try to locate the miners.
August 11 — Piñera sacks the head of national mining regulator Sernageomin, and vows a major overhaul of the body, which monitors mine safety.
August 19 — The farthest-along drill reaches the level in the mine where authorities presumed the miners to be, but does not hit the shelter or encounter any signs of the miners.
August 22 — Early in the day, a drill reaches a depth of 688m and rescue workers hear tapping on the drill. Early in the afternoon, Piñera announces the miners had tied a note to the drill that said: “The 33 of us in the shelter are well.”
Hours later, rescue workers capture the first video images of the miners, showing them to be in much better condition than expected.
Golborne and Andre Sougarret, head of the rescue drilling operation, say rescue of the miners will take three to four months, given the instability of the mine and the time needed to drill a new hole, about 66cm in diameter, to extract them.
August 23 — Food, water and medicine are lowered to the miners, who were running low on supplies found in the rescue chamber.
September 17 — A rescue drill reaches the miners. The small hole is widened over the next month to prepare for their evacuation.
October 4 — Golborne says the miners could be rescued in the second half of October. The men have started to prepare for their trip home by sending back to the surface gifts like soccer jerseys signed by Pele and rosaries blessed by the Pope.
October 8 — Golborne says a rescue shaft could reach the miners as early as that day and evacuation of the miners could begin the next week.
October 9 — Rescue workers finish drilling an escape shaft about 625m long to a slightly higher part of the tunnel, triggering jubilant celebrations. The government says the men will be evacuated within days.
October 11 — Rescue workers finish reinforcing the escape shaft with metal tubes to avoid any last-minute disaster and successfully test one of the evacuation capsules. The government says it will start to raise the men to the surface on Tuesday night.
October 13 — All 33 trapped miners are pulled to safety after two months underground in an extraordinary rescue operation watched live on television by millions around the world. — Reuters,m AFP