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Chilean miners emerge from darkness

By Guy Adams at the San Jose mine

They were too exhausted to say all that much, but one of the most exuberant men found the energy to sit up in his stretcher and ask his wife an all-important question: "How's the dog?"

One by one, the 33 men who had been trapped almost half a mile below the surface of the San Jose copper mine in the Atacama desert of northern Chile emerged into the fresh air yesterday, in a perfectly executed rescue operation that was cheered by a nation and watched by the entire world.

As each member of "Los 33" stepped out of the Phoenix rescue capsule, cheers rang through Camp Hope, a sprawling hillside encampment where families of the trapped men had been anxiously waiting for the moment when their loved ones would return for almost 70 days.

When the first of the survivors, a shy 31-year-old truck driver called Florencio Avalos, emerged shortly after midnight, a cloud of red, white and blue balloons was released into the freezing night sky. Church bells rang in the camp and across the nation. Some onlookers sobbed, others hugged each other, chanting the name of a proud country: "Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le!"

On a big screen erected outside the canteen in the centre of the camp, onlookers saw Avalos embrace his wife, Monica, and son, Bairon. Then he bear-hugged the rescue team, along with President Sebastian Pinera, and gave a thumbs up to onlookers as he was stretchered into the medical facility.

An hour later, an exuberant Mario Sepulveda came to the surface, topping off one of the most remarkable survival stories in human history with a piece of pure theatre. He pumped his fist, jumped up and down, shouted "I'm so happy!" waved a flag, and led the crowd in chants of "Long live Chile!" Then he pulled out a yellow bag full of rocks, which he presented to rescuers as "souvenirs" from the mine.

It was Sepulveda who asked about the health of the family's dog. The local papers were already calling him "The Presenter" because of the comic video recordings he'd sent to the surface during the more-than two months when the miners were trapped. Now they have dubbed him "Super Mario".

As the night turned to day, the speed of each rescue, which involves sending the tight-fitting escape capsule down a 26in-wide shaft through more than 600 metres of solid rock, quickened. By 3pm, 18 of the 33 were back on the surface, and rescuers hoped to have the remainder out by this morning.

Many of their first steps of freedom mixed raw human emotion with incongruous flourishes. Jimmy Sanchez, at 19 the youngest of the men, emerged waving the banner of his favourite football team, Universidad de Chile. Claudio Yanez, who had accepted a marriage proposal from his partner, Cristina, during his time underground, ran into his new fiancée's arms and kissed her so vigorously that her hard hat fell off.

The lone foreigner among the men, a Bolivian called Carlos Mamani, stepped out of the Phoenix to see a crowd of workmen waving his nation's flag. After embracing his wife, he pointed to the Chilean flag on his T-shirt and shouted: "Thank you, Chile!"

His words were loaded with significance since Chile and Bolivia are longstanding territorial rivals who do not even have diplomatic relations. In what observers have dubbed "mine diplomacy", Mamani's President, Evo Morales, attended the rescue operation and even gave a press conference with Pinera, his supposed enemy.

The unthinkable odds over which the men have triumphed, surviving the first 17 days of their ordeal on rations of two spoons of tuna, two sips of milk and a cracker every 48 hours, are being widely ascribed to an act of God by their families, who have built Catholic shrines throughout Camp Hope and received a congratulatory message from the Pope yesterday.

Two previously agnostic men have "found religion" during their time underground, attending daily prayer sessions. When the 63-year-old man who helped convert them, Mario Gomez, reached the surface, he hugged his wife, unfurled a Chilean flag, and dropped to his knees in prayer. Omar Reygadas, another of the spiritual leaders among "Los 33" emerged holding a Bible.

But organisers of this well-run operation were at pains to stress that it was too early to begin talking about miracles until all 33 of the miners have been saved, and the last of the rescue workers who bravely descended into the San Jose mine to oversee the operation have also returned to the surface.

From early on during Tuesday night's rescue, they were nonetheless sufficiently confident to abandon a somewhat cautious plan to restrict images of the rescue by covering the main view of the top of the escape hole with a large Chilean flag. They also took the decision to make public a feed of proceedings from inside the mine.

The world was able to watch extraordinary footage of the moment when the Phoenix capsule dropped into the chamber for the first time, carrying a heroic rescue worker, Mario Gonzalez. He smiled convivially, and walked out to greet the bare-chested miners amid applause and handshakes.

"This rescue operation has been so marvellous, so clean, so emotional that there was no reason not to allow the eyes of the world, which have been watching so closely, to see it," said Chile's President, in a speech explaining the decision to screen the footage.

Of course, no one knows what difficulties await the freed men, who are being bused and flown to the Regional Hospital in Copiapo following their release. Their skin conditions and severe dental problems are relatively easy to fix, and for the most part they seem fit, if somewhat pale by Chilean standards. But the psychological scars of incarceration may be slower to heal.

There are signs that they are starting to get to grips with their new-found fame. Speaking to a camera crew in a tented area up the hill from the Plan B rescue shaft, Mario Sepulveda, the only miner to speak publicly during the first hours of the rescue said: "I make a plea to the media to not treat us like artists or show-business figures. I would like you to show me how I am: a miner."

Asked for details of his experiences underground, he added: "I have learned a lot of wonderful lessons about taking the good path in life. For those of you able to call your wives or your husbands, do so... I think I had extraordinary luck. I was with God and with the Devil. And I reached out for God and he won."

Belfast Telegraph


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