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

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.

"I am convinced that Chile's greatest treasure is not copper, it is the miners," he said.

Hundreds of millions of viewers worldwide watched as an underground camera captured grainy video of each miner getting into the capsule for the trip up. The miners wore shorts in the cavern, where the temperatures and humidity are high, but switched to green work suits before getting into the capsule, dubbed the Phoenix. They put on helmets and special protective sunglasses so their eyes would not be damaged by the glare on the surface.

Once freed, Mario Gomez, at 63 the oldest miner, dropped to his knees, hugged his wife and said, "Thank you."

Carlos Mamani, the only non-Chilean among the 33, embraced and kissed his wife. Mamani, who is Bolivian, chatted with his nation's president, Evo Morales, who arrived at the mine to witness the rescue of his countryman.

Avalos's wife, Monica, said her faith, and that of her husband, saw them through the ordeal. She had waited for him day after day at the makeshift camp - called Esperanza, or Camp Hope - with the families of other miners and hundreds of journalists. "God was always present," she said. "It is a miracle. This rescue was so difficult. It is a great miracle."

Pinera's administration received messages of congratulations from governments around the world, including the United States.

"Last night, the whole world watched the scene at Camp Esperanza as the first miner was lifted out from under more than 2,000 feet of rock and then embraced by his young son and family," President Obama said in remarks at the White House Rose Garden. "And the tears they shed - after so much time apart - expressed not only their own relief, not only their own joy, but the joy of people everywhere."

Once invisible for so long, toiling underground with little recognition, the miners are now celebrities who will face a dizzying array of propositions and invitations. Sepulveda, who captivated his country with his humor and wit in videos from the deep, seemed to understand this.

"We do not want to be treated like artists or journalists," he said after his rescue. "I want to still be treated like Mario Sepulveda Espina, worker, miner."

But if other historic sagas of disaster and perseverance are any guide, the lives of "Los 33," as they are known here, will be altered forever. Jeff Goodell, a contributing editor to Rolling Stone magazine who wrote a book about nine miners who survived a Pennsylvania mine disaster, said the Chilean miners are accustomed to hard, dirty and dangerous work. But he said that, much like the American miners rescued in 2002 in Somerset, Pa., the Chileans have no idea about the pressures of celebrity that await them.

"They are being reborn into a world that they know nothing about, unlike the one that they are used to," said Goodell, whose book, "Our Story: 77 Hours That Tested Our Friendship and Our Faith," was a bestseller. "They are going to be flown around with foreign leaders, get tickets to soccer games, be asked to speak to corporations, and there will be a lot of pressures put on them that they are woefully unprepared for."

Even before their rescue, the men had been invited to make appearances in Europe, with one Greek company, Elmin, offering to take them to soccer matches in Spain and England. Chilean mining executive Leonardo Farkas gave $10,000 checks to each of the miners' families. Mining companies have met to determine which ones can offer jobs to the men, should they still want to make a living under the surface.

"Some of them are real miners who have done this as a career, and others were just starting," said Carlos Vilches, a congressman who represents this region and is a part-owner of a mine. "Those who have been in mines, they will go back, no doubt."

But Vilches said the pressure on the miners would be intense. "Just imagine, everyone wants to hear their story," he said.

Alejandro Pino, a former journalist who was part of a support team offered by the country's leading workplace insurance association, said the men "are no longer the same people, but important celebrities, not just nationally, but on the international stage."

For nine days before the miners were freed, Pino spoke to them via a video link, offering pointers on how to talk to reporters. "They will need to construct their ideas so they can be interesting and entertaining," he said Wednesday.

Pino said the miners want to do the best they can to maintain their old lifestyle, even if people here in Chile and beyond are clamoring to hear their stories.

"They don't consider themselves heroes," Pino said. "They are called heroes, they are called everything. But they say they are just trying to be normal."

Staff writer Scott Wilson in Washington contributed to this report.

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