The operation to rescue the workers is expected to take at least 48 hours
Florencio Avalos, one of 33 Chilean miners trapped in a collapsed mine for more than two months, has been raised through a small rescue tunnel in a skinny, missile-like capsule nicknamed “Phoenix”.
Avalos was the first miner to be rescued on Wednesday and was chosen because he was considered among the most physically and mentally fit of the group.
He stepped out of a rescue capsule amid sobs from his young son and received a hug from Sebastian Pinera, the president.
Avalos began his journey after a paramedic named Manuel Gonzalez reached the miners following a short, 17-minute descent down a half-mile-long rescue tunnel.
Gonzalez spoke to the group, and preparations got under way to send the first miner back to the surface.
The risky operation is being followed minute-by-minute by international media and Chilean citizens.
Medics on alert
The blaring of a siren and a revolving light will greet the arrival of each miner as they emerge from the depths of the mine.
“Every time that a miner is about to re-emerge on the surface, the mine will be giving birth to one of its ‘children’ and a siren will sound a note,” Jaime Manalich, the country’s health minister, said.
Next to the rescue shaft “a revolving light will shine for a minute and the siren, similar to an ambulance, will be activated,” he added, saying it will be a sign for the medical teams to be on maximum alert.
Manalich said this protocol would be repeated “for each of the miners”.
Avalos, a 31-year-old driver, was chosen by officials as the first miner to be brought to the surface.
Avalos is second in hierarchy to shift supervisor Luis Urzua, and is married with two children.
He will be followed by Mario Sepulveda, 39, an electrical specialist, who is also married, and then by Carlos Mamani, the only Bolivian in the group of the 33 trapped miners.
The country’s president is at the mine to oversee the rescue.
“God be willing, in a few days the whole country will be weeping with joy … when we see these miners emerge from the depths of the mountain to embrace their wives, children, mothers and fathers,” Pinera said.
Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, is also expected to attend the rescue attempt.
The 32 Chileans and one Bolivian were trapped in the San Jose mine in northern Chile on August 5, when its upper galleries collapsed.
They were detected alive 17 days later, triggering the frantic rescue operation.
Initially, officials had thought it would take until Christmas to get the miners out, but the drilling of a rescue tunnel 622 metres deep to reach where the miners were trapped was completed last weekend.
Since then, tests of the tunnel have been successfully completed and the rescuers are set to slowly bring the men to the surface, one by one.
Engineers say the rescue of each miner could take up to 90 minutes, meaning the entire rescue could last up to two days.
The last of them was expected to be saved by late on Thursday.
Once the first four miners had been brought to the surface they will be flown to a hospital in the nearby city of Copiapo.
The process will continue with four miners at a time until all the miners have been flown to the hospital.
Monica Villamizar, Al Jazeera’s correspondent at the scene of the rescue, said: “Authorities have told us that after all the necessary medical tests have been made, and the check-ups complete, they are free to go with their families and they are free to talk with whoever they want.
“There are a lot of rumours here about contracts going on and even deals for books and films with Hollywood.”
Each of the trapped miners has been promised six months of psychological support by the Chilean government.
Preparing for the rescue, doctors have ordered the miners to do 20 minutes of aerobic exercise a day to prevent muscle cramps on the way to the surface.
They will also have to fast for eight hours before they come up, and they have been given sunglasses to protect their eyes after so much time in the dark.
“The miners are very busy, that’s also to keep their spirits up,” Manalich said.
|Rescuers have reinforced part of the 600 metre long escape shaft with steel piping|
“It remains a paradox: they’re actually much more relaxed than we are.
“We have to protect them until the last minute, until they can return to normal lives with their families.”
Initially the miners were all thought to have perished.
Then after two weeks of silence came an extraordinary note, penned in capitals and written with red ink, that gave Chile the miraculous news that the miners were still alive.
“All 33 of us are well inside the shelter,” the note said.
It was written by the eldest miner, 63-year-old Mario Gomez, and attached to a drill bit which breached their shelter on August 22.
Cameras lowered through small bore holes have revealed pictures of the men, often bare-chested because of the stifling heat, and their shelter lit mainly by the lamps on their hard-hats.
They are in remarkably good health, though some have skin infections from being in damp, humid
conditions for so long.