Chile mine rescue underway; 8 hoisted safely to surface

By Juan Forero and Jonathan Franklin
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; 6:45 AM

SAN JOSE MINE, CHILE - After 10 weeks in a dark, hot purgatory 2,000 feet underground, the first of 33 trapped miners were hoisted to freedom early Wednesday, a rescue marking the beginning of the end of a drama that captivated people worldwide.

The rescue operation continued at a steady pace of about one miner per hour, with eight men brought safely to the surface so far, each emerging to cheers of "Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le!" -- the country's name. The operation to free all 33 miners could last until Thursday.

Florencio Avalos, 31, emerged in the cold of Chile's northern Atacama Desert just after midnight Wednesday (11 p.m. Eastern time Tuesday), 69 days after he and his fellow miners were sealed in a cavern. They were trapped Aug. 5 when hundreds of thousands of tons of rocks collapsed on the gold and copper mine.

A specially designed rescue capsule, sporting the Chilean flag and shaped like a missile, maneuvered deep into the Earth down a 28-inch-wide emergency shaft and extricated Avalos. He was welcomed back to the surface with spirited cheers and tearful hugs before medical personnel led him away for a checkup.

The capsule, meanwhile, was quickly sent back down to bring out Mario Sepulveda, 40, whose whoops of joy could be heard even before the capsule broke the surface. Once freed, Sepulveda exubrantly handed out souvenir rocks he brought up with him in a yellow satchel, even giving one to Chilean President Sebastian Pinera.

"I think I had extraordinary luck," Sepulveda later told reporters. "I was with God and with the devil - and God took me."

Among the other rescued miners was the youngest -- 19-year-old Jimmy Sanchez, who hugged his waiting father -- and a Bolivian, Carlos Mamani, who shouted, "Gracias, Chile!" when he emerged from the escape capsule.

The plight of the miners has gripped this country of 17 million, and the dramatic nighttime rescue of Avalos played out on national television. The government carefully choreographed several facets, including Pinera's pep talk to rescue planners and the singing of the national anthem.

"We made a promise to never surrender, and we kept it," Pinera said as he waited to welcome the miners.

The government also provided a televised feed of events at both ends of the rescue shaft that was seen worldwide.

The rescue drew scores of people Tuesday night to the Chilean Embassy in the District. High hopes mixed with anxiety as the crowd watched live coverage from a Chilean network on a jumbo television screen, and they celebrated Avalos's arrival with an eruption of cheers and the popping of champagne corks.

The 33 men are believed to have survived longer underground than anyone else in the history of mining accidents.

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