At Chilean mine, joy and relief as tunnel reaches trapped men

Relatives of trapped miners embrace Matt Staffel, a driller from Denver, after the passage was completed. "We just came to help," Staffel said.
Relatives of trapped miners embrace Matt Staffel, a driller from Denver, after the passage was completed. "We just came to help," Staffel said. (Claudio Santana)
By Jonathan Franklin
Sunday, October 10, 2010

SAN JOSE MINE, CHILE - Chilean rescue workers on Saturday morning completed a tunnel 699 yards deep into a collapsed mine where 33 miners have spent the past two months trapped underground.

The miners, who had been gathered anxiously for the previous 12 hours at the section of the tunnel where the drill bit entered, celebrated. Ten minutes after the drill reached them, they sent messages topside that no one had been injured.

The slightly angled hole into the San Jose copper and gold mine will now be used to haul out the miners one by one in a specially designed rescue capsule. That operation is expected to begin Wednesday, according to Chile's mining minister, the Associated Press reported Saturday night.

Seconds after the drill reached the miners, a chorus of truck horns echoed through the valley, a long-awaited signal to relatives who had held a 48-hour vigil of hope and anxiety. Hundreds of family members hugged, cried and climbed up the mountain to celebrate. On the slope, surrounded by 33 flags - one for each of the trapped men - relatives cheered and talked of the moment when their loved ones would be free. The men have been stranded since Aug. 5 and were discovered alive Aug. 22.

"It is almost over - they are about to get out," said Roberto Reyes, 45, a miner whose uncle Mario Gomez is one of those trapped.

Gomez, at 63 the oldest of the confined miners, has been a spiritual leader for the men underground, leading them in prayer and building an altar.

"I am sending him tranquillity and comfort. The worst is over," said Alonso Gallardo, 34, another nephew of Gomez's.

"He can confront this, he already survived the accident," said Reyes, referring to a mining accident years ago that severed his uncle's fingers and mutilated his hands.

Family members gathered around the embers of campfires and smiled as they ate breakfast and shared coffee and hugs with strangers. Hundreds of foreign journalists rushed to get out the news that "Los 33" were one step closer to freedom.

As horns blared and clowns traipsed through the camp, the 65-day ordeal of the miners, 32 Chileans and one Bolivian, shed its air of anxiety.

"We are going to have a huge party in the neighborhood," said Daniel Sanderson, 27, who slept just one hour during the night as he awaited news of the fate of his two best friends. "This is going to be huge, with reggaeton, cumbia and so much drink he is going to need a new liver!"

Sanderson, who has worked in the San Jose mine, said that despite the dangers and the extreme experience of being trapped underground, his friends will continue to work as miners. "They already wrote me they are going to look for new mining jobs - we are all miners."

As the hours passed, the scene at Camp Hope became festive as food donations poured in, miners in hard hats went tent to tent hugging family members and journalists scampered to keep up with a story for which the world has an apparently insatiable appetite.

"These are for everyone," said Juan Gonzalez, 39, as he unloaded 40 crates of fresh avocados at his family's tent. "I just want to hug them," he said, referring to his brothers trapped in the mine, Renan and Florencio Avalos. "I would tell them to stay calm. We are all waiting here."

At noon, the camp erupted in cheers as a caravan of drilling equipment and trucks drove slowly down the mountainside. Family members lined the dusty dirt road as police officers tried to clear a path through dozens of photographers and reporters. As the caravan inched along, members of the crowd responded as if they were welcoming home a victorious sports team. To cries of "bravo" and "many thanks," the truck drivers blasted their horns and grinned wildly.

Matt Staffel, 29, a driller from Denver who worked at the heart of the rescue operation, as evidenced by the oil stains on his clothes, appeared stunned by the crowd's excitement. "We just came to help and do what we could," he said.

Franklin is a special correspondent.

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