The ordeal of 33 miners trapped for two months underground in Chile ended late Wednesday as the last miner, Luis Urzua, 54 — the man who guided his men through the ordeal — emerged to safety and ear-splitting cheers above ground.
It took less than 24 hours for the pioneering capsule-and-winch system to hoist the 33 men to safety and joyous welcome by their families.
Urzua was the shift supervisor when the mine shaft collapsed, and set up the rules credited with keeping his men alive in the first 17 days — for example, rationing food to a gulp of milk and bit of tuna every 48 hours and setting up work details.
Urzua was the last to be winched to the surface “like a good captain,” in the words of Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, who embraced Urzua as he has most of the other miners as they emerged.
“I should hope that this never happens again,” Urzua told Pinera.
“Thanks to the whole of Chile.” Rescue workers joined Pinera and Urzua in singing the Chilean national anthem to mark the end of a historic feat watched round the world. Only about 22 hours earlier, Florencio Avalos, 31, was the first pulled up in the Phoenix rescue capsule.
The miners were trapped when the shaft they were working on collapsed on August 5. For the first 17 days, they had hope, but no sign that anyone would find them. People above ground had in fact presumed them either dead or beyond rescue.
On the 17th day, a drill probe reached them. The miners sent a note back up, reading “All 33 of us are safe in the shelter.” Pinera showed Urzua the note immediately after he stepped out of the rescue capsule at the San Jose copper mine.
Urzua was wrapped in the Chilean flag, bearing autographs, presumably from his comrades in the mine ordeal.
A grinning Pinera told Urzua: “I am taking over your shift, and I congratulate you because you did what you had to do, leaving last like a good captain.” Urzua told Pinera that the miners had difficult times underground, most notably when the dust cleared after the collapse and they saw they were trapped. But they made it through.
“We managed to stay sane,” Urzua, a topographer by training, said.
He set his men to making detailed maps of the shafts they could move through.
Among Urzua’s survival strategies was turning on the lights of underground machinery to replicate daylight for several hours a day.
It was the first known rescue of its kind from that depth in the history of underground accidents.
“Chile reached into the heart of the world, and I think we showed the best of us,” Pinera said.
The health of the men was generally “more than satisfactory” as they emerged, Chilean Health Minister Jaime Manalich said.
“We have had no surprises,” Manalich told reporters at Copiapo Regional Hospital.
Seven required special care, in particular one who suffered from acute pneumonia and two others who needed dental surgery under general anaesthesia.
Manalich said the case of pneumonia had been known to rescue teams for four days and was being treated with antibiotics sent down through the small “pigeon” transport system that carried food, water and other items down a narrow shaft to the men as they awaited rescue.
“All of them are in very good psychological condition,” Manalich said.
After Urzua reached the surface, people poured onto squares across Chile to celebrate. Honking, tears and hugs marked a day which many felt was historic, even if they did not know the miners personally.
“We are doubly proud, of the miners and of the rescue workers,” one of the people celebrating in Santiago said.
An estimated 1 billion people worldwide watched the rescue operations on television, US broadcasters estimated.
The rescue capsule designed and built by the Chilean navy was equipped with oxygen tanks, communication lines and special belts to monitor the miners’ vital signs. The men consumed only a liquid diet to prevent nausea and boost blood pressure during the ascent from the 622—metre—deep launch platform, which took close to 18 minutes for the first miners and nearer 10 minutes for the last.
The rescue in the Atacama Desert took place in an atmosphere of euphoria, patriotism, religious fervour and optimism. While the faces of family members were inscribed with tension while they awaited the first handful of miners to emerge, most traces of anxiety had vanished as it was clear the system worked.
The miners reacted differently as their 70—day shift ended: Some were silent and barely smiled, others joked with rescue workers even before reaching the surface, and still others knelt down to pray.
The miners were examined by doctors on site and had brief meetings with their families, then were evacuated by helicopter to the regional hospital in the nearby city of Copiapo, where they are to remain for at least 48 hours for medical tests and recovery plans.
Several of the rescued miners, including the young Jimmy Sanchez, 19, promised to marry their partners.
“Chi Chi Chi, Le Le Le, miners of Chile,” crowds cheered at the rescue site, imitating football fans, while some people danced and red, white and blue balloons — the Chilean national colours — rose to the night sky during the first rescues.