October 2010

Mr Sepulveda was the second man to be released Times photographer, David Bebber

The Atacama desert is as barren and lifeless as anywhere on Earth, but yesterday it was the scene of almost biblical rebirth as miner after miner was plucked from the subterranean netherworld that had entombed them for 69 days.

“I have come back to life,” whispered Mario Gómez, 63, as he became the ninth of the 33 men to be delivered into fresh air and freedom after the longest period of underground entrapment that human beings have ever endured.

“I was with God and with the Devil. I fought between the two. I seized the hand of God,” proclaimed Mario Sepúlveda, 40, the second hero to be rescued by probably the most complex mining rescue operation in history. “Thank the Lord,” proclaimed the miners’ T-shirts as they stepped from the tiny capsule that returned them to the surface.

Time after time the capsule, suspended from a large yellow gantry, was lowered down the 620m rescue shaft, emerging an hour later with another human cargo.

Night turned to dawn, dawn to a scorching desert day, and dusk to freezing, floodlit night, and still they came, each new arrival greeted by rapturous cheers, tearful hugs, relatives crumpling with emotion, and wild, untramelled jubilation throughout the nation.

There were enough tears of joy to turn the desert green, and more passion and drama than on any Shakespearian stage.

The miners were then whisked by helicopter to a hospital in Copiapó, the nearest city, for two days of observation and recuperation, but they all looked remarkably healthy and well-groomed after an ordeal that would have crushed lesser mortals.

Jaime Mañalich, the Health Minister, said that the men were in good shape, apart from one who had acute pneumonia and two who had serious dental problems requiring surgery.

In a show of solidarity, relatives of the first freed miners refused to leave Camp Esperanza until all 33 were out.

By early afternoon the ten weakest had been rescued without any apparent ill-effects. Later, Laurence Golborne, Chile’s Mining Minister, confidently predicted that the almost flawless operation would be completed by sunrise today — far ahead of schedule.

It was an operation “without comparison in the history of humanity”, claimed President Piñera, who greeted each of “Los 33” with the words “Welcome to life”.

Messages of support and congratulation poured in from across a planet transfixed by the astounding images and euphoric scenes emanating from this tiny patch of rock and sand.

President Obama said that the Chilean people had inspired the world. President Piñera took calls from David Cameron, President Sarkozy of France, President Lula da Silva of Brazil and many other world leaders. The Pope offered prayers for the miners and entrusted them to “God’s goodness”.

The rescue marked the climax of an epic tale of human endurance and ingenuity — a tale that began an age ago on August 5 when 700,000 tonnes of rock collapsed, trapping the men in the suffocatingly hot and humid depths of the San José gold and copper mine.

For 17 days they survived on two spoons of tuna and a sip of milk every 48 hours. Just as their food and hopes ran out, a probe reached the refuge and came back up with a note attached: “We are well in the shelter, the 33.”

Chile rejoiced, but the miners’ ordeal was only beginning. Three separate drilling operations were launched, racing to carve a rescue shaft through 700 metres of exceptionally hard rock, but the men were told that they would probably not be freed until Christmas.

Down a borehole little wider than an orange they were sent food, medicines, clothes and crucifixes blessed by the Pope. Inventors found ways of sending down beds, projectors, cameras and safety boots in pieces that the miners could reassemble. The men imposed upon themselves almost military discipline — work groups, regimented days, twice-daily prayer sessions.

From the surface they were nurtured by teams of doctors and psychologists, and by families who set up tents around the minehead and vowed not to leave without their menfolk. Chileans plastered cars, roadsides and walls with proclamations of support. The Government spared no expense, employing more than 1,200 rescuers and spending tens of millions of dollars.

The beginning of the end came early last Saturday morning when the “Plan B” drill broke through into a passage accessible to the miners, completing a rescue shaft the diameter of a bicycle wheel. As engineers rushed to erect a gantry for lowering and raising a bullet-shaped capsule dubbed Phoenix, the symbol of rebirth, an army of television crews arrived from every continent to witness the denouement.

The final rescue, dubbed Operation San Lorenzo after the patron saint of mining, finally began shortly before midnight local time on Tuesday when Manuel González, a rescue expert from the state-owned mining company Codelco, climbed into the capsule.

“Bring the 33 miners back safely,” Mr Piñero exhorted him. Fellow rescue workers chanted “Let’s go, let’s go, Chileans. Tonight we’re going to get you out,” and the wheel above the gantry began to turn, lowering Mr González into the earth. As the capsule vanished, Mr Piñera made a sign of the cross over the shaft and everyone sang the national anthem.

Relatives, workers and journalists gathered in the desert, crowds gathered in public squares across Chile, and millions watched on television as the long minutes passed.

Then, suddenly, grainy pictures from the miners’ underground prison appeared on jumbo screens erected around Camp Esperanza.

There, magically, was the Phoenix descending like a spacecraft. The bare-chested miners cheered, punched the air in delight, and chanted “Chi Chi Chi Le Le Le”. Mr González stepped out, beaming, and greeted the men much as Livingstone might have greeted Stanley. After more than 1,600 hours their isolation was over.

Florencio Ávalos was strapped into the capsule after saying goodbye to his brother, Renán. Mr González radioed to the surface and the capsule began to rise and those left behind applauded.

The ascent took about 16 minutes but it felt like an eternity. In the camp some 30 members of Mr Ávalos’s family held hands, many overwhelmed by emotion. At the top of the shaft, Mr Piñera waited anxiously with his wife, Cecilia Morel, and Ávalos’s seven-year-old son, Bairon. A siren sounded, heralding the capsule’s approach. Everyone craned over the shaft.

“Vamos, vamos,” someone shouted as it finally emerged to wild cheers. Bairon was wailing. There was not a dry eye in camp, and probably not in Chile.

Mr Ávalos stepped out, heavy-duty sunglasses protecting his eyes from the floodlights, and hugged his son, hugged Mr Piñera, hugged the sobbing First Lady, hugged the Mining Minister, the Health Minister, the chief engineer, the rescue co-ordinator and every leading official involved in his liberation.

Television crews mobbed his family. “It’s a huge joy. I’m so happy,” declared his weeping father, Alfonso, before the sheer crush of journalists forced him to flee. Across Chile church bells rang and fire stations sounded their sirens. Crowds waved flags. Drivers honked horns. Around the world Chilean ambassadors lit candles.

As the capsule descended again, bearing Roberto Ríos, a naval officer and medic, Mr Piñera went before the cameras and declared: “This has fulfilled the Chilean dream . . . This country shows its true soul, shows what it is capable of, when we face adversity.” Camp Esperanza would become a national monument, he added.

Mario Sepúlveda, 40, the miners’ cameraman, was next up. He was shouting ecstatically even before he reached the surface and leapt from the capsule. He, too, hugged everyone in sight. From a yellow bag around his neck he produced rocks and handed them out to the President, the First Lady and anyone in sight. He pranced over to a group of rescue workers and led them in chants of “Viva Chile”. He almost had to be forced on to the gurney taking him to the field hospital.

“It’s incredible that they saved us from 700 metres below,” he said later. “The only thing I’ll ask is that you don’t treat me as a celebrity, but as a miner. I was born a miner and I’ll die a miner.”

And so the rescue continued, one an hour with almost clockwork precision. The process accelerated during the day. Carlos Mamani, 23, the only Bolivian, was fourth up. “Gracias, Chile!” he shouted. Friends and relatives chanted: “Thank you Chile, thank you world. Bolivia hugs you from Camp Hope.”

President Morales of Bolivia presented Mr Mamani with a certificate lauding his “fuerza and esperanza” (faith and hope) and assuring him he would never again have to leave Bolivia to find work. “Bolivia is never going to forget this,” the radical left-wing former farmer declared as he stood beside Mr Piñera, a right-wing billionaire.

Jimmy Sánchez, the youngest miner at 19, came up fifth and was greeted by his father waving the flag of his favourite football team. The eighth, Claudio Yáñez, embraced the woman he plans to marry — one of three miners who proposed during their incarceration.

The ninth, Mario Gómez, the oldest at 63, unfurled a flag signed by his colleagues, then fell to his knees and prayed. “I have come back to life,” he whispered. “Often something has to happen to you before you stop and think and understand that you only have one life, and then you think what you have to change.” He also intends to marry his long-time partner.

The eleventh, Jorge Galleguillos, told Mr Piñera: “Thank you for believing that we were alive.” The 13th, Carlos Barrios, 27, was greeted by his father, Antenor, whose two other sons died young. The father cried “Thank you Lord”. Víctor Segovia, 48, hugged Mr Piñera and said: “Thank you for your leadership and inspiration.”

At noon a fresh batch of rescuers were sent down and soon afterwards the 17th miner arrived. Omar Reygada, whose fourth great-grandchild was born while he was trapped, clutched a Bible and his helmet was inscribed with the words “Dios Vive” — God Lives.

It was a sentiment repeated any number of times, in any number of countries. “We are all Chilean rescuers and family now,” Diego Maradona, the former football star, tweeted from Argentina. “Miracles do exist.”