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Chile mine rescue underway; 8 hoisted safely to surface

Asked about the dangers of mining, particularly at this copper and gold deposit, Urzua said he and the others knew of the hazards. "We always say that when you go into the mine, you respect the mine and hope you get out," he said.

'We knew they were alive'

The miners' lifeline to the outside world since late August has been a tube no wider than an orange, through which they have been able to converse with rescuers and family members by telephone. They have received necessities such as medicine and food but also personal items to pass the time, such as music.

"They think this is room service," quipped Jean Romagnoli, a doctor who has been monitoring the miners' health through special straps that track their heart rate and blood pressure.

The miners have been told how their saga mobilized a battalion of rescue planners, medical authorities, mining executives and even NASA engineers, who helped troubleshoot some of the equipment the Chileans designed for the rescue.

Mining expertise permitted rescuers to drill a bore hole 17 days after the mine collapsed that reached the space where the miners had been trapped. Rescue workers on the surface heard a faint clanging on the drill bit.

"It was like they were hitting it with a spoon," said Eduardo Hurtado, who operated the machine that enabled rescuers to make that first contact with the miners. "Then a far stronger clanging came up. We knew they were alive."

Then on Saturday, another drill finished chewing through hundreds of feet of rock, creating a wider shaft. That hole is only about the diameter of a bicycle tire but is big enough for the capsule designed to hoist the men up, one by one.

The capsule rises at a rate of about a yard per second, bumping against the sides of the tunnel. A camera on the vessel allows doctors on the surface to monitor how each miner reacts as he is being raised. Rescue planners were also to be in constant radio contact with the men as they made their way up.

Those waiting on the surface include medical teams that will quickly examine the miners before they are airlifted to a hospital in Copiapo, a town nearby.

Preparing for exit

In their final hours underground, the miners tried to wash up and comb their hair to appear presentable. Special clothes, tailored to each man, were sent down. Some of the miners gathered a few rocks to take with them, a memento from the place they called home for more than two months.

Richard Villaroel, 26, said by phone that he was excited about reuniting with his wife, who is expecting a baby this week. "I didn't sleep at all last night," he said. "I couldn't."

Up in Camp Hope, where the miners' families have lived for weeks as authorities methodically planned the rescue, loved ones could hardly contain themselves as word spread that the operation was about to begin.

"I feel anxious," said Olga Carmona, 36, the niece of Mario Gomez, 63, the eldest miner. "We have waited all these weeks, so it's just hours away, but it is eternal."

Belgica Ramirez, Gomez's sister-in-law, said she could imagine how they will all want to embrace. "We will just hug him and cry," she said. "Then we plan to do a cookout and celebrate."

Franklin is a special correspondent. Staff writer Mary Pat Flaherty contributed to this report from Washington.

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