Last of Chilean miners is rescued, as families and nation celebrate

Luis Urzua is the last to leave the mine in a special rescue capsule winched to the surface.
By Juan Forero and Jonathan Franklin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 14, 2010; 12:37 AM

AT THE SAN JOSE MINE, CHILE He had spent 69 exhausting days trapped far below the Earth's surface. So when Mario Sepulveda was finally rescued early Wednesday, he bear-hugged Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, danced a victory jig and punched his fist into the air while leading rescuers in a cheer that summed up the elation in this country.

In a mesmerizing story of grit, endurance and triumph, the 33 men who had been stuck underground since their gold and copper mine collapsed on Aug. 5 were hoisted to the surface, one by one, in a rescue celebrated across Chile and watched on live television worldwide. At 8:55 p.m. Eastern time, the last of the miners, Luis Urzua, the stoic foreman, was lifted from purgatory, capping off a flawless operation that lasted less than a day.

"I was with God, and I was with the devil," Sepulveda, the second man freed from the mine, said upon reaching freedom. "They both fought for me. God won."

Sepulveda then bounded into a field hospital, hugging journalists, nurses and rescue personnel and saying "Thank you, thank you" to anyone within earshot. Stopping for a moment to talk, the 40-year-old told The Washington Post that he never doubted that he would be extricated from the 2,000-foot-deep hole that he and the others called home for 10 weeks.

"We always knew that we would be rescued," he said. "We never lost faith."

(PHOTOS: The rescue of the Chilean miners)

The first to come up Tuesday night, Florencio Avalos, a 31-year-old barrel-chested man, hugged his rescuers as the crowd whooped and cried with joy. He then walked into the field hospital, flopped down on a couch and exclaimed: "It's over. It's over at last."

And when Urzua, the foreman, emerged, he told Pinera, "We have done what the entire world was waiting for." The president replied, according to the Associated Press: "You are not the same, and the country is not the same after this. You were an inspiration."

A little more than 90 minutes later, the last of six rescue workers who had been lowered into the mine to assist in the evacuation was pulled out, the final success in a wholly triumphant operation.

The rescue effort, carefully orchestrated by Chilean engineers, included a 13-foot cigar-shaped rescue capsule constructed with tips from NASA. An American from Denver, Jeff Hart, who had been drilling water wells in Afghanistan, drilled the escape shaft, 28 inches in diameter. And an innovative winch was installed to lower and then pull up the rescue vessel, which weighs nearly 1,000 pounds.

The miners, who had been in contact with the outside world through a narrow hole drilled Aug. 22, were given special diets to keep them from getting sick on their bumpy, spinning journey to freedom.

Pinera, who has yet to complete his first year in office, told his countrymen that they should be overjoyed at the rescue.

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