With remarkable speed and flawless execution one miner after another climbed into a slender cage deep beneath the Chilean earth, was hoisted through 2,000 feet of rock and saw precious sunlight on Wednesday after the longest underground entrapment in history.
As night fell, 30 of the 33 miners, including the weakest and sickest, had been pulled to freedom, and officials appeared on track to pull up the last miner well before midnight (11 p.m. EDT).
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 globe.
“Welcome to life,” President Sebastian Pinera told Victor Segvia, the 15th miner out, and on a day of superlatives, it seemed no overstatement.
They rejoined a world intensely curious about their ordeal, and certain to offer fame, jobs and previously unimaginable riches.
The men made the smooth ascent inside a capsule called Phoenix —13 feet tall, barely wider than their shoulders and painted in the white, red and blue 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 at midnight on Tuesday, and sometimes as quickly as every 30 minutes, the pod was lowered the nearly half-mile to where 700,000 tons of rock collapsed Aug. 5 and entombed the men. Then a miner would strap himself in, make the journey upward and emerge from a manhole into the blinding sun.
The rescue was planned with extreme care. The miners were monitored by video on the way up for any sign of panic. They had oxygen masks, dark glasses to protect their eyes from unfamiliar light and sweaters for the jarring transition from subterranean swelter to chilly desert air.
As they neared the surface, a camera attached to the top of the capsule showed a brilliant white piercing the darkness not unlike what accident survivors describe when they have near-death experiences.
As it travelled down and up, down and up, the rescue capsule was not rotating as much inside the 2,041-foot escape shaft as officials expected, allowing for faster trips, and officials said the operation could be complete by sunrise on Thursday, if not sooner.
The first man out was Florencio Avalos, who emerged from the missile-like chamber and hugged his sobbing 7-year-old son, his wife and the Chilean president.
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.
The men emerged in good health. But at the hospital in Copiapo, where miner after miner walked from the ambulance to a waiting wheelchair, it became clear that psychological issues would be as important to treat as physical ones.
Dr. Guillermo Swett said Sepulveda told him about an internal “fight with the devil” that he had inside the mine. He said Sanchez appeared to be having a hard time adjusting, and seemed depressed.
“He spoke very little and didn’t seem to connect,” the doctor said.