'Flawless' mine rescue nears end
Published 13/10/2010 | 18:02
With remarkable speed - and flawless execution - miner after miner climbed into a cramped cage deep beneath the Chilean earth, was hoisted through 2,000 feet of rock and saw precious sunlight after the longest underground entrapment in history.
By early on Thursday, 29 of the 33 miners, including the weakest and sickest, had been pulled to freedom, and officials said they might even be able to bring everyone out by midnight local time.
After 69 days underground, including two weeks during which they were feared dead, the men emerged to the cheers of exuberant Chileans and before the eyes of a transfixed world.
The operation picked up speed as the day went on, but each miner was greeted with the same boisterous applause from rescuers. "Welcome to life," President Sebastian Pinera told Victor Segvia, the 15th miner out. On a day of superlatives, it seemed no overstatement.
They rejoined a world intensely curious about their ordeal and certain to offer fame and jobs. Previously unimaginable riches awaited men who had risked their lives going into the unstable gold and copper mine for just over £1,000 a month.
The miners made the smooth ascent inside a capsule called Phoenix - 13ft tall, barely wider than their shoulders and painted in the white, blue and red of the Chilean flag. It had a door that stuck occasionally, and its wheels needed lubricating at least once, but it worked exactly as planned.
Beginning in the early hours of Wednesday, British time, and sometimes as quickly as every 25 minutes, the pod was lowered the nearly half a mile to where 700,000 tons of rock collapsed on August 5 and entombed the men.
As it travelled down and up, down and up, the rescue capsule was not rotating as much inside the 2,041ft escape shaft as officials expected, allowing for faster trips.
The last man out was expected to be shift foreman Luis Urzua, whose leadership was credited with helping the men endure the first two and a half weeks without outside contact. The men made 48 hours' worth of rations last before rescuers reached them with a narrow bore hole to send down more food.
No-one in recorded history has survived as long trapped underground. For the first 17 days, no one even knew whether they were alive. In the weeks that followed, the world was captivated by their endurance and unity.