Chilean rescuers hoisted 33 trapped miners to safety on Wednesday as millions watched around the globe and church bells pealed across the nation after a two-month underground ordeal.
In a complicated but flawless operation under Chile’s far northern desert, Luis Urzua, who was shift leader when the mine collapsed in early August, emerged last through 625m of rock in a metal capsule little wider than a man’s shoulders.
With much of the world transfixed on TV, celebrations erupted and the miners, who set a world record for survival underground, were welcomed as national heroes outside the San Jose gold and copper mine in the Atacama desert.
“I hand the shift over to you and hope this never happens again,” Urzua (54), wearing a hard-hat and shades to protect his eyes, told a waiting and emotional President Sebastián Piñera.
Bells and horns sounded throughout the South American country in celebration, while a crowd outside the mine chanted “Viva Chile” amid smiles, tears and a sea of red-white-and-blue national flags.
Rescuers held up a sign in Spanish reading: “Mission Accomplished” before ascending themselves after the 33 miners were evacuated. Some people compared the 24-hour operation to the mid-space rescue of the Apollo 13 crew 40 years ago.
Congratulations poured in from abroad, with United States President Barack Obama hailing the rescue as an inspiration to the world.
When the mine caved in on August 5, the men were all thought dead in yet another of Latin America’s litany of mining accidents. But rescuers found them 17 days later with a bore hole the width of a grapefruit.
That tiny hole became an umbilical cord used to pass hydration gels, water and food to keep them alive until a bigger space could be bored to bring them up. Video images of the men took their plight into households around the globe.
Mining has played a central but often tragic role in Latin American history, starting with the hunt for gold and silver that drove the Spanish conquest.
For centuries, conditions were atrocious but they have improved radically in recent decades and the industry has helped fuel an economic boom in some nations, including Chile.
Overhaul of safety regulations
Piñera, a billionaire entrepreneur who took office in March and was at the mine throughout the rescue operation, has ordered an overhaul of safety regulations after the accident.
At the end of the operation, rescue workers opened the capsule door and hugged Urzua, who insisted throughout he would not leave the tunnel until all the others were safely out.
The evacuation process — via a metal capsule named Phoenix after the mythical bird that rose from the ashes — went quicker and more smoothly than anyone dared to believe, swelling Chileans’ pride at the rescue.
“This was the toughest match of my life,” said Franklin Lobos, a former professional soccer player who turned to mining and driving a taxi to make ends meet, when he came out.
Relatives of Bolivian miner Carlos Mamani react to his rescue in Copiapo. (Reuters)
The miners were generally in good health, except for one who had pneumonia and was being treated with antibiotics.
“This is a miracle from God,” said Alberto Avalos, the uncle of Florencio Avalos, a father of two who was the first to emerge shortly after midnight.
The Chileans’ survival story was captured and broadcast by 1 500 journalists camped at the remote scene.
The exhausted but euphoric miners hugged rescuers who travelled down the shaft to their refuge deep in the mine.
Unknown workers before the mine collapse, the 33 men are now global media stars.
One became a father during captivity, while another came to the surface with a book draft, and a third kept Chileans guessing as to who would greet him when he came out: wife or mistress.
The successful end to the miners’ underground ordeal was particularly welcome to Chileans after the trauma of a massive February earthquake that killed more than 500 people.
Piñera waited at the mouth of the shaft through the night and day to greet and hug the men after an operation he said cost up to $20-million. His popularity ratings have surged.
Bolivia’s president, Evo Morales, was also there to greet the sole foreign miner — Bolivian Carlos Mamani.
The saga has improved ties between the two neighbours, despite an old dispute over Bolivia’s demand for sea access.
While Chile will continue to shut old, decrepit mines after the miners’ saga, the clampdown is unlikely to hit output in the world’s top copper producer, industry insiders say.
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