The first of the Chilean miners trapped underground for 69 days were being winched to fresh air and freedom today amid cheers from their families and countrymen.
Florencio Avalos, 31, wearing a helmet and sunglasses to protect him from the glare of rescue lights, smiled broadly as he emerged from the missile-like escape capsule and hugged his sobbing seven-year-old son Bairo and his wife. He also embraced Chilean president Sebastian Pinera and other rescuers.
Also on hand was Mr Avalos’ other son and father.
After the capsule was pulled out of a manhole-sized opening at the San Jose mine, Mr Avalos emerged as bystanders cheered, clapped and broke into a chant of “Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le!” – the country’s name.
Shy Mr Avalos gave a thumbs-up as he was led to an ambulance and a series of medical tests after more than two months deep below the Chilean desert – the longest anyone has ever been trapped underground and survived.
Mr Avalos was chosen to be first because he was in the best condition. He has been so shy that he volunteered to handle the camera rescuers sent down so he would not have to appear on the videos that the miners sent up.
Mr Pinera described how lovely it was to see Mr Avalos’ sons greet their father, especially young Bairo.
“I told Florencio, that few times have I ever seen a son show so much love for his father,” the president said.
“This won’t be over until all 33 are out. Hopefully the spirit of these miners will remain forever with us...This country is capable of great things.”
Minutes earlier, mine rescue expert Manuel Gonzalez of the state copper company Codelco grinned and made the sign of the cross as he was lowered into the shaft to the trapped men – apparently without incident. He was followed by Roberto Ros, a paramedic with the Chilean navy’s special forces. Together they will prepare the miners for their rescue – expected to take as many as 36 hours for all to surface.
The second man pulled to freedom was Mario Sepulveda Espina, who climbed out of the capsule jubilantly hugged his wife, President Pinera and rescuers – then handed them pieces of rock from his underground home.
“We made a promise to never surrender, and we kept it,” Mr Pinera said as he waited to greet the miners, whose endurance and unity captivated the world as Chile meticulously prepared their rescue.
The third miner to be rescued, Juan Illanes, is a former soldier who urged his trapped colleagues to be disciplined and organised.
He hugged his wife and then climbed on to his cot, smiling broadly as he was wheeled away.
The fourth miner to reach the surface was the lone Bolivian among the 33 men trapped underground.
Carlos Mamani was greeted by his wife Veronica, with a hug and kiss that knocked off her white helmet as Chile’s president and first lady held small Bolivian flags.
Mr Mamani also gestured with both forefingers at the Chilean flag on his T-shirt and shouted “Gracias, Chile!” before a round of back-slapping with his rescuers.
Mr Mamani had just started working as a heavy equipment operator at the mine when it it collapsed.
He was recruited by his father-in-law, Johnny Quispe, who said that he narrowly escaped being crushed himself when the rocks fell, and that everyone at the mine knew it was dangerously overworked.
The last miner out has been decided - shift foreman Luis Urzua, whose leadership was credited for helping the men endure 17 days with no outside contact after the collapse. The men made 48 hours’ worth of rations last before rescuers reached them with a narrow borehole to send down more food.
Janette Marin, sister-in-law of miner Dario Segovia, said the order of rescue did not matter.
“This won’t be a success unless they all get out,” she said, echoing the solidarity that the miners and people across Chile have expressed.
The paramedics can change the order of rescue based on a brief medical check once they are in the mine. First out will be those best able to handle any difficulties and tell their comrades what to expect. Then, the weakest and the ill – in this case, about 10 suffer from hypertension, diabetes, dental and respiratory infections and skin lesions from the mine’s oppressive humidity.
The last should be people who are both physically fit and strong of character.
Chile has taken extensive precautions to ensure the miners’ privacy, using a screen to block the top of the shaft from thousands of journalists at the scene.
The miners will be ushered through an inflatable tunnel, like those used in sports stadiums, to an ambulance for a trip of several hundred yards to a triage station for a medical check.
They will gather with a few relatives in an area also closed to the media, before being taken by helicopter to a hospital.
Each ride up the shaft is expected to take about 20 minutes and authorities expect they can haul up one miner an hour. When the last man surfaces, it promises to end a national crisis that began when 700,000 tons of rock collapsed on August 5, sealing the miners into the lower reaches of the mine.
The only media allowed to record them coming out of the shaft will be a government photographer and Chile’s state TV channel, whose live broadcast will be delayed by 30 seconds or more to prevent the release of anything unexpected. Photographers and camera operators are on a platform more than 300 feet away.
The capsule – the biggest of three built by Chilean navy engineers – was named Phoenix for the mythical bird that rises from ashes. It is painted in the white, blue and red of the Chilean flag.
The miners were being closely monitored from the moment they’re strapped in the capsule. They were given a high-calorie liquid diet donated by Nasa, designed to keep them from vomiting as the capsule rotates 10 to 12 times through curves in the 28-inch-diameter escape hole.
A video camera in the escape capsule would watch for panic attacks. The miners will wear oxygen masks and have two-way voice communication.
Their pulse, skin temperature and respiration rate will be constantly measured through a biomonitor around their abdomens. To prevent blood clotting from the quick ascent, they took aspirin and will wear compression socks.
The miners will also wear sweaters because they will experience a shift in climate from about 90 degrees underground to near freezing on the surface after nightfall. Those coming out during daylight hours will wear sunglasses.