By Juan Forero and Jonathan Franklin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, October 13, 2010; 8:58 PM
SAN JOSE MINE, CHILE - A saga that had gripped the world for more than two months ended happily Wednesday night as the last of 33 miners who had been trapped under 2,000 feet of rock in northern Chile was pulled to the surface.
Luis Urzua, the 54-year-old who was shift foreman when the gold and copper mine collapsed, was the last to leave the mine in a special rescue capsule winched to the surface. When he stepped out of the capsule, rescuers exulted over the end of what had once seemed a near-improbable task. (One rescuer remained in the mine, however, awaiting his own trip to the surface.)
The rescue effort had triggered a great swell of national pride in Chile, and each miner was greeted upon his return with patriotic cheers of "Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le!" and an embrace from President Sebastian Pinera, who has been a near-constant presence at the mine during the ordeal.
"Bienvenido a la vida," Pinera told Victor Segovia, the 15th miner to emerge. In English, the phrase means, "Welcome to life."
The 33 men are believed to have survived longer underground than anyone else in the history of mining accidents. Each emerged seemingly in good health, wearing dark sunglasses to protect his eyes after 69 days in their dark, humid cavern under the Atacama Desert.
"We always knew that we would be rescued," Mario Sepulveda, the second miner pulled from the depths, said shortly after he emerged. "We never lost faith."
After he stepped out of the capsule, the ebullient Sepulveda led those gathered at the surface in a rousing cheer, earning him the nickname "Super Mario" in Chilean newspapers.
Like those before him, the 20th miner rescued, Dario Segovia, 48, emerged freshly shaved and hugged his wife before lying down on a gurney and being wheeled into a field hospital.
In Washington, President Obama said: "This rescue is a tribute not only to the determination of the rescue workers and the Chilean government, but also the unity and resolve of the Chilean people, who have inspired the world. And I want to express the hopes of the American people that the miners who are still trapped underground will be returned home safely as soon as possible."
He also commended those from the United States and other nations who assisted in the rescue effort, including a NASA team that helped design the escape capsule, U.S. companies that manufactured parts of the rescue drill and the American engineer who flew in from Afghanistan to operate the drill.
"Last night, the whole world watched" as the first rescued miner surfaced, Obama told reporters. "It was a thrilling moment, and we're hopeful that those celebrations duplicate themselves throughout the rest of today," he said.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said earlier that Obama viewed the rescue effort as "a tremendously inspirational story, a story with a happy ending."
The men were sealed into a hot, dark purgatory after surviving an Aug. 5 mine collapse.
"Chile's first astronaut is arriving!" yelled Christian Tapia, one of the rescuers, as the first man up, Florencio Avalos, was hoisted to safety shortly after midnight local time.
Avalos, wearing a helmet and sunglasses, walked to the field hospital, hugged family members and flopped down on a white couch, exhausted.
"It's over; it's over at last," he said.
His wife, Monica, said that she and her husband are religious, and she called the rescue a miracle. "This rescue was so difficult - it's a grand miracle," she said. "He has so much experience in this mine, and he was a leader, like a pastor with his sheep."
Minutes later, Sepulveda was hugging everyone around him. "We are so happy and very proud of our country for all they did for us," he said.
Despite their ordeal, the miners appeared healthy, which was surprising to Andres Llarena, the lead physician at the hospital. He called their health "way above average, not what we expected." The only thing that appeared abnormal, he said, was the color of their skin.
"They are very pale," he said. "In medicine, when you see paleness you associate with something not good, but here it was just because they had no sun."
The men huddled with family members in private rooms - some talking rapidly about what they'd been through, others quickly falling asleep.
"They were very happy to be in sleeping in a bed, they loved the shower," said Llarena. Once stabilized and cleared by doctors, the men were put on helicopters for a 12-minute flight to a hospital in Copiapo, a small city just over a ridgeline of mountains.
The rescue capsule, sporting the Chilean flag and shaped like a missile, maneuvered deep into the earth down a 28-inch-wide emergency shaft to extricate the men. Their rescue has been celebrated across this country of 17 million people, which had been captivated by the life-and-death struggle.
Motorists honked their horns in Santiago, the capital far to the south, and Pope Benedict XVI said that he "continues with hope to entrust God's goodness" with the fate of the men.
Sepulveda, 40, handed out rocks he had taken up from the depths in a yellow satchel, even giving one to 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 the oldest, 63-year-old Mario Gomez, who pumped his fist as he was loaded onto a stretcher for the required checkup after a long, emotional embrace with his wife of 30 years.
The sole Bolivian in the group, Carlos Mamani, shouted, "Gracias, Chile!" when he emerged from the escape capsule.
The government also provided a televised feed of events at both ends of the rescue shaft that was seen worldwide.
Every step of the operation had been meticulously planned, from the engineering that went into the construction of the rescue capsule to Tuesday's tests of the winch.
The miners had been given a special diet to help prevent their becoming nauseated on the way up. After weeks in the sweltering mine, they were also expected to wear sweaters for their reentry into the world above; temperatures in the Atacama Desert can drop close to freezing at night.
Speaking by phone from the mine Tuesday morning, Urzua reflected on the saga, carefully choosing his words to describe what it was like for such a large group to be imprisoned 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," said Urzua, who has been mining for three decades. "I hope to never live again like this, but that's the life of a miner."
Taking charge after the collapse, Urzua rationed food, giving each miner one spoonful of tuna every 48 hours during their first 17 days trapped underground. He also kept order, something that NASA specialists who have been monitoring the crisis say was vital to keeping up morale 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.
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.
Franklin is a special correspondent. Staff writers William Branigin and Mary Pat Flaherty contributed to this report from Washington.