Chilean miners to begin emerging tonight
Alberto Cuadra/The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 12, 2010; 6:35 PM
SAN JOSE MINE, Chile - After 68 days deep in a dank, hot purgatory, the first of 33 trapped miners was expected to be hoisted to freedom Tuesday night, ending a dramatic life-and-death struggle that has mesmerized much of the world.
The first miner was expected to surface by 9 p.m. Eastern, a two-hour delay from an earlier timeline announced by Chilean President Sebastian Pinera.
Authorities said the miner would be Florencio Avalos, who is relatively healthy despite his ordeal and prepared to deal with unforeseen problems should the specially designed capsule that will carry to him to freedom become lodged in a 28-inch tunnel. The last miner out will be Luis Urzua, 54, who was shift chief when the mine collapsed and has been a steady force for the other miners.
Speaking by phone from the mine Tuesday morning, Urzua reflected on the saga, carefully choosing his words to describe what it has been like for such a large group to be trapped in such tight quarters for so long. "This was a group with different personalities and manners of being," he said.
"We have had a stage here in our lives that we never planned for, and I hope to never live again like this, but that's the life of a miner," said Urzua, who has been mining for three decades. Taking charge after the collapse, Urzua rationed food, giving each miner one spoonful of tuna every 48 hours.
He also kept order, ensuring that the group maintained unity, which NASA specialists who have been monitoring the drama say was vital to keeping up moral and preventing discord.
"We had to be strong," Urzua said. "All the workers in the mine fulfilled their roles." One miner became the spokesman to the outside world, for instance, while others provided comic relief for their comrades and still others simply showed fortitude for their less experienced colleagues. "We worked hard for our own rescue," Urzua said.
Asked about the dangers of the mine, particularly this copper and gold mine in the middle of the Atacama desert, Urzua explained that they all knew of the inherent dangers. "We always say that when you go into the mine you respect the mine and hope you get out," he said.
That was the past, though, and now the miners are focusing on their freedom as well as the range of emotions they are sure to feel after being reunited with loved ones and coming into contact with an army of reporters and cameramen eager to hear what it was liked to be trapped for so long.
Through their lifeline to the outside world, the miners have been able to converse with rescuers via telephone, receive toothbrushes and clean socks, and get detailed instructions about their rescue. They also know about the intense interest in their story in Chile and in the world beyond.
"We're so proud the whole country has come behind us," Urzua said. He said that the men are are now focused on cleaning up the cavity they have called home for more than two months - though he noted that "we don't have any place to put the garbage."
Some of the men were gathering rocks to take up with them, a reminder for the rest of their lives about the place where they almost died. Richard Villaroel, 26, said by phone that he was excited about being with his wife, who is expected to deliver a baby this week.