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Chile awash in joy, relief

Last of the miners pulled to safety in flawless operation

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By Michael Warren
Associated Press / October 14, 2010

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SAN JOSE MINE, Chile — The last of the Chilean miners, the foreman who held them together when they were feared lost, was raised from the depths of the earth last night — a joyous ending to a 69-day ordeal that riveted the world. No one has ever been trapped so long and survived.

Luis Urzua ascended smoothly through a hole in 2,000 feet of rock, completing a 22-hour rescue operation that unfolded with remarkable speed and flawless execution. Before a crowd of about 2,000 people, he became the 33d miner to be rescued.

Stepping out of the capsule, Urzua hugged President Sebastián Piñera, shook hands with him, and said they had prevailed in difficult circumstances.

“We have done what the entire world was waiting for,’’ he told Piñera. “The 70 days that we fought so hard were not in vain. We had strength, we had spirit. We wanted to fight, we wanted to fight for our families, and that was the greatest thing.’’

As Urzua hugged and shook hands with rescue workers, he said: “Thank you. Thank you for everything. You have been excellent.’’

With Urzua by his side, the president led the crowd in singing the national anthem.

Manuel Gonzalez, the last of six rescue workers who talked the men through the final hours, was hoisted to the surface at 12:32 a.m. Thursday local time to hugs from his comrades and Pinera.

The crowd in “Camp Hope,’’ down a hill from the escape shaft, set off confetti, released balloons and sprayed champagne as Urzua’s capsule surfaced, joining in a rousing miners’ cheer. In Chile’s capital of Santiago, hundreds gathered in Plaza Italia, waving flags and chanting victory slogans in the miners’ honor.

In nearby Copiapó, about 3,000 people gathered in the town square, where a huge screen broadcast live footage of the rescue. The exuberant crowd waved Chilean flags of all sizes and blew on red vuvuzelas as cars drove around the plaza honking their horns, their drivers yelling, “Long live Chile!’’

“The miners are our heroes,’’ said teary-eyed Copiapo resident Maria Guzman, 45.

One by one throughout the day, the men had emerged to the cheers of exuberant Chileans and before the eyes of a transfixed globe. The operation picked up speed as the day went on, but each miner was greeted with the same boisterous applause from rescuers.

“Welcome to life,’’ Piñera told Victor Segovia, the 15th miner out. On a day of superlatives, it seemed no overstatement.

They rejoined a world intensely curious about their ordeal and certain to offer fame and jobs. Previously unimaginable riches awaited men who had risked their lives going into the unstable gold and copper mine for about $1,600 a month.

The miners made the smooth ascent inside a capsule called Phoenix — 13 feet tall, barely wider than their shoulders, and painted in the white, blue, and red of the Chilean flag. It had a door that stuck occasionally, and some wheels had to be replaced, but it worked exactly as planned.

Beginning at midnight Tuesday, sometimes as quickly as every 25 minutes, the pod was lowered the nearly half-mile to where 700,000 tons of rock collapsed Aug. 5.

Then, after a quick pep talk from rescue workers who had descended into the mine, a miner would strap himself in, make the journey upward.

The rescue was planned with extreme care. The miners were monitored by video on the way up for any sign of panic. They had oxygen masks, dark glasses to protect their eyes from the unfamiliar sunlight, and sweaters for the jarring transition from subterranean swelter to chilly desert air.

The miners emerged looking healthier than many had expected and even clean-shaven, though each was soon taken to a hospital for a thorough examination.

When emerging from the capsule, several thrust their fists upward like prizefighters, and Mario Sepulveda, the second to taste freedom, bounded out and led his rescuers in a rousing cheer. Franklin Lobos, who played for the Chilean national soccer team in the 1980s, briefly bounced a soccer ball on his foot and knee.

Health Minister Jaime Manalich said some of the miners probably will be able to leave the hospital today — earlier than projected — but many had been unable to sleep, wanted to talk with families, and were anxious. One was treated for pneumonia, and two needed dental work.

Chile exploded with joy and relief when the rescue began just after midnight in the coastal Atacama desert. Car horns sounded in Santiago, the Chilean capital, and school was canceled in the nearby town of Copiapó, where 24 of the miners live.

Among the first rescued was the youngest miner, Jimmy Sanchez, at 19 the father of a months-old baby. Two hours later came the oldest, Mario Gomez, 63, who has a lung disease common to miners. He dropped to his knees after he emerged, bowed his head in prayer, and clutched the Chilean flag.

Gomez’s wife, Lilianett Ramirez, pulled him up from the ground and embraced him. The couple had talked via video once a week, and she said he had repeated the promise he made to her in his initial letter from inside the mine: He would remarry her in a church wedding, followed by the honeymoon they never had.

The lone foreigner among them, Carlos Mamani of Bolivia, was visited at a clinic by his president, Evo Morales, and Piñera.

Sepulveda’s performance exiting from the shaft appeared to confirm what many Chileans thought when they saw his engaging performances in videos sent up from below — that he could have a future on TV.

But he tried to quash the idea as he spoke to viewers of Chile’s state television channel while sitting with his wife and children shortly after his rescue.

“The only thing I’ll ask of you is that you don’t treat me as an artist or a journalist, but as a miner,’’ he said. “I was born a miner and I’ll die a miner.’’

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