Chile miners: The trapped men begin emerging to cheers, tears [UPDATED]
The first of 33 gold and copper miners entombed half a mile below ground for more than two months were hauled into the frigid Chilean desert air early Wednesday morning, emerging from a cramped, life-saving haven and into the embrace of family members once forced to confront the likelihood of their deaths.
Florencio Avalos, 31, a foreman, was winched to freedom first, inside a slim capsule pulled through the 28-inch-wide shaft that had been drilled to reach the men’s underground refuge. He emerged to ecstatic cheers from rescue workers and the families of the miners, but was shielded from the view of the reporters who had arrived from around the world to cover the dramatic event.
Amid whistles, raw shouts and tears, Avalos hugged his wife, his weeping 7-year-old son and the president of Chile, Sebastian Pinera.
Next came Mario Sepulveda Espina, who happily handed out some rocks he brought up with him.
[UPDATED 11:17 p.m.: Third to emerge was Juan Illanes Palma, and he was followed by the only Bolivian in the mine, Carlos Mamani.]
The other miners are expected to be rescued at a rate of about one an hour, barring accidents or obstacles. The plan is to have the last of the miners on the surface within two days. Luis Urzua, 54, who emerged as the leader of the miners during the ordeal, is to be the last out.
Miners’ relatives, government officials and media representatives all eagerly awaited the first sign of a successful rescue on what was the 69th day of captivity for the men. President Sebastian Pinera arrived at the mine Tuesday to see the rescue efforts and greet the miners.
“We made a promise to never surrender and we kept it,” Pinera said.
As relatives waited for details about when their loved ones were to be hoisted up aboard the Phoenix rescue capsule, they said they were allowing themselves to feel an enormous sense of relief.
Juan Alcalipe, whose son-in-law Osma Araya, 30, was among the trapped miners, said he was excited to be so close to the end of a nightmare. Araya, he said, won’t be returning to work at the mine.
“My daughter won't let him,” Alcalipe said.
Near the rescue site were containers that were to serve as a makeshift clinic, where for two hours the miners are to receive first aid if needed and be given the chance to shower and change clothes.
Farther up a steep incline, past enormous cranes and other equipment used in the rescue effort, were a half-dozen container-like structures where miners were to be reunited with their families.
Earlier, Golborne said he was not ready to declare “mission accomplished” despite his confidence in the rescue preparations. He said officials hoped that at least one of the miners would be out of the mine before the end of the day Tuesday.
-- Chris Kraul in Copiapo, Chile
Photo: Roberto Candia / Associated Press