By Jonathan Franklin and Juan Forero
Washington Post Foreign Service
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.
"I didn't sleep at all last night. I couldn't," Villaroel said. He sent "lots of love to his family waiting above."
Tough-bitten men such as Mario Gomez, 63, who once worried about surviving, are now concerned about how they will look as they emerge from the darkness.
"My father worried about his looks and likes to put on cologne and comb his hair back nicely," said Maria Jose Gomez, 17, who has been camping out on this moonscape in the northern Atacama desert. "He will be thinking about combing his hair. He only has, like, three hairs, but he worries about it."
Although viewers from as far away as Japan and Russia have been mesmerized by the drama, the remarkable story of survival has also consumed people in this dagger-shaped country on the southern fringe of South America.
Chileans have long fretted that aside from a dark dictatorship that ended in 1989, their country gets little attention. Theirs is a nation known in Latin America for a diverse economy and fruity wine. But Chileans are painfully aware that their country has not fielded world-class soccer teams or produced famous pop stars on the level of Colombia's Shakira.
So the tale of fortitude and grit at this gold and copper mine in this desolate stretch, and the ingenuity that has authorities gleeful about a dramatic rescue, has buoyed Chileans like nothing else.
"This has been very positive for the country, because in the world, no one knew Chile," said Belgica Ramirez, sister-in-law of Mario Gomez. "But now they know us. They know how we help each other."
Those who live in this harsh environment working as miners have put flags outside their homes and talked of a newfound solidarity. Their message on banners is as directed to the miners as it is to the outside world: "Show strength."
And the president, who has been a constant presence here, has said that the drama has revealed the noble nature of the Chilean soul. Pinera, speaking from Ecuador on Monday before returning to Chile for the rescue, said the operation represents a "true rebirth, not just for the 33 miners but also for the spirit of unity, strength, faith and hope they have shown our country and around the world."
The news was particularly rosy Monday, just two days after a drill had reached the miners in a hot cavity that had survived the Aug. 5 mine collapse. Rescuers reinforced the hole that had been excavated to reach the miners, placing a metal tubing 180 feet from the surface to prevent pieces of rock from breaking off.
They then tested Phoenix 1, a capsule designed by Chilean Navy engineers that will be used to pull up the miners, one by one. In the trial run, about 165 pounds of sand was loaded aboard, said Andre Souggaret, the rescue leader. He said the capsule did not spin or rock, leaving planners more optimistic about the speed of the operation.
Laurence Golborne, the mining minister, told reporters that the capsule, similar in some ways to an Olympic sled, was lowered to within 40 feet of where the miners are huddled.
"The results of the tests have been very promising, very positive," he said. "The capsule handles well inside the duct and adapts well both inside the metal tubes and the rock." Officials at the mine said it would take the capsule about five minutes to reach the men and then about 10 minutes to be drawn back up. With time taken into account for possible problems, from the tube getting wedged to rocks falling down the 28-inch-diameter hole, the rescue is expected to take 12 to 24 hours.
Those planning the rescue want the first men out to be healthy and well prepared to handle any problems that could arise as the capsule makes its first trip up. The first man out is expected to be Avalos, who is relatively young, officials said.
The miners will be wearing sophisticated chest straps, supplied by Annapolis-based Zephyr Technology, that will monitor their heart rate and blood pressure. Physicians will monitor the data as the miners are pulled up.
"The biggest risk is probably fainting," said Jean Romagnoli, a physician who has been monitoring the miners' health.
Romagnoli said another problem could be a panic attack, although that seems unlikely. "These guys don't get claustrophobia," he said. "They are used to working in small, confined spaces. Otherwise they wouldn't be miners." That does not mean that there are no concerns.
On Monday, there was a distinct cracking sound inside the mine shaft, not unlike the sound icebergs make before a huge mass of ice slides off.
Gomez's wife, Lilianett Gomez, said her emotions had changed dramatically - from desperation weeks ago to anxiety Monday. She said, though, that people here had shown that they have the strength to weather the crisis, and now the whole world knows it.
"God put these 33 miners together," she said. "It must have been for something, perhaps to send a message to the world."
Franklin is a special correspondent.