Details about efforts to rescue 33 workers trapped in mine for more than two months.
After more than two months underground, all 33 miners have now emerged from the collapsed Chilean copper mine in the Atacama desert to the excitement and relief of waiting family and friends.
Rescue teams lifted the miners to the surface one by one in a narrow, missile-like capsule, nicknamed Phoenix. The operation, which rescuers originally said would take around two days, finished in 22 hours. Miners who were told they would be lucky to make it out by Christmas now all saw daylight by the third week of October.
Each miner stepping out of the capsule was greeted by three family members – and President Sebastian Pinera – before being seen by waiting doctors and flown to a triage centre for at least two days of check-ups.
The 33rd and last miner to be rescued was Luis Urzua, 54, the shift supervisor who organised the miners and was credited as a calming presence in the mine. He reportedly would not let anyone eat until everyone’s food had arrived through the rescue shaft.
The last of the rescue specialists involved in the extraction was lifted to safety early on Thursday, ending the ordeal.
The 32 Chileans and one Bolivian trapped in the San Jose mine in northern Chile were initially believed to have perished, but they had found refuge in an emergency shelter and survived by strictly rationing their food and water.
On Wednesday, Evo Morales, the Bolivian president, visited Carlos Mamani, his rescued compatriot, at the triage centre.
Officials decided the order in which the miners would be pulled up based on their health and capacities. The first group would be the healthiest, the middle group comparatively infirm, and the last group also healthy.
The first miner to be rescued was Florencio Avalos, a 31-year-old driver, chosen because he was considered among the most physically and mentally fit of the group.
He smiled broadly as he emerged and hugged his weeping seven-year-old son and wife. He then embraced president Pinera, who had been at the scene overseeing the rescue operation.
Mario Sepulveda, a 39-year-old electrical specialist, was the second to reach the surface.
After hugging his wife, he jubilantly handed souvenir rocks to laughing rescuers.
“I’m so happy!” Sepulveda yelled, punching his fist in the air and hugging everyone in sight.
The miners were pulled up through a 600m-deep shaft in a rescue capsule wide as the shoulders of an average built miner, designed specifically for the operation.
The miners communicated with rescue teams using an intercom in the capsule.
It took only 16 minutes for miners to be pulled up the shaft. It was originally estimated that the journey would take half an hour, though the final ascents lasted only around nine.
Avalos began his journey after a mining rescue expert and a paramedic were lowered down the rescue tunnel to prepare the miners for their rescue.
‘Hundreds of contingencies’
The operation had been followed minute by minute by international media and Chilean citizens. More than 800 journalists and cameramen have gathered at the site.
The only media allowed to record the men coming out of the shaft were a government photographer and Chile’s state TV channel, whose live broadcast was delayed by 30 seconds or more to prevent the release of anything unexpected.
Panic attacks had been the rescuers’ biggest concern: a miner could get claustrophobic and do something to damage the capsule or a falling rock could wedge it in the shaft. But none seemed upset; one even described the trip as a “cruise”.
Al Jazeera’s correspondent Lucia Newman said the successful rescue operation is good news for Pinera, whose government has been criticised for its slow response to the earthquake, which killed more than 500 people in February. The UK Telegraph reported that Pinera’s approval rating since the incident had risen from 46 per cent to 57 per cent.
“Pinera has been under quite a bit of criticism for the slowness of the reconstruction effort,” our correspondent said.
“[The mine rescue] has taken away some of the attention from that. Most of the eyes of the country have been focused on this rescue effort but once it’s over, people will go back to asking the hard questions.
“Not only what happened in the mine and what’s wrong with the mining regulations in Chile but also what about the rest of the country?”
The miners are reported to have moved to stop any individual from profiting at the expense of the group, drawing up a legal contract to share any profits from the story of their experience.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Stuart Higgins, a former UK tabloid newspaper editor, said: “The media opportunities in terms of films, books, tv specials, will be absolutely unlimited.
“And of course with 33 men, as with any large group of people, there’s going to be disputes, there’s going to be things that have gone on down underground that we don’t know about.
“One of the big issues is going to be, for the media, is the first person out of the blocks of course. If one person tells their story, is that going to be much different from the other 32 stories?
“So there’s going to be a real kind of challenge to keep unity amongst these men, which has been absolutely crucial when they’ve been 2,000 feet underground.
“But now I think there’ll be a few rows, and a few disputes, and I think we are going to have a fascinating few months to come.”
Al Jazeera’s Monica Villamizar, reporting from the rescue scene, 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.”
|Rescuers reinforced part of the 600 metre long escape shaft with steel piping|
Each of the trapped miners has been promised six months of psychological support by the Chilean government.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Eugen Gaal, from the UK Society of Occupational Medicine, said: “It’s a life-changing experience for all of them and some of them will actually use it to change their lives and others will crumble.
“There’s a range of emotions I would expect them to go through.
“Feelings of panic, nightmares, anxiety, even physical symptoms are well known after traumatic events.
“Some individuals will be more prone to this than others and it’s the long-term support, the psychological support that has been assured to these miners, that will help them to possibly overcome these problems if they do occur.”
Medics say some of the men are psychologically fragile and may struggle with stress for a long time after their rescue.