SAN JOSE MINE, Chile —
With remarkable speed — and flawless execution — miner after miner climbed into a cramped cage deep beneath the Chilean earth, was hoisted through 2,000 feet of rock and saw precious sunlight Wednesday after the longest underground entrapment in history.
By nightfall, 31 of the 33 miners, including the weakest and sickest, had been pulled to freedom, and officials appeared on track to pull up the last miner well before midnight (11 p.m. EDT).
After 69 days underground, including two weeks during which they were feared dead, the men emerged to the cheers of exuberant Chileans and before the eyes of a transfixed globe. The operation picked up speed as the day went on, but each miner was greeted with the same boisterous applause from rescuers.
“Welcome to life,” President Sebastian Pinera told Victor Segvia, the 15th miner out. On a day of superlatives, it seemed no overstatement.
They rejoined a world intensely curious about their ordeal, and certain to offer fame and jobs. Previously unimaginable riches awaited men who had risked their lives going into the unstable gold and copper mine for about $1,600 a month.
The miners made the smooth ascent inside a capsule called Phoenix — 13 feet tall, barely wider than their shoulders and painted in the white, blue and red of the Chilean flag. It had a door that stuck occasionally, and some wheels had to be replaced, but it worked exactly as planned.
Beginning at midnight Tuesday, and sometimes as quickly as every 25 minutes, the pod was lowered the nearly half-mile to where 700,000 tons of rock collapsed Aug. 5 and entombed the men.
Then, after a quick pep talk from rescue workers who had descended into the mine, a miner would strap himself in, make the journey upward and emerge from a manhole into the blinding sun.
The rescue was planned with extreme care. The miners were monitored by video on the way up for any sign of panic. They had oxygen masks, dark glasses to protect their eyes from the unfamiliar sunlight and sweaters for the jarring transition from subterranean swelter to chilly desert air.
As they neared the surface, a camera attached to the top of the capsule showed a brilliant white piercing the darkness not unlike what accident survivors describe when they have near-death experiences.
The miners emerged looking healthier than many had expected and even clean-shaven. Several thrust their fists upwards like prizefighters, and Mario Sepulveda, the second to taste freedom, bounded out and led his rescuers in a rousing cheer. Franklin Lobos, who played for the Chilean national soccer team in the 1980s, briefly bounced a soccer ball on his foot and knee.
“We have prayed to San Lorenzo, the patron saint of miners, and to many other saints so that my brothers Florencio and Renan would come out of the mine all right. It is as if they had been born again,” said Priscila Avalos. One of her brothers was the first miner rescued, and the other was due out later in the evening.
Health Minister Jaime Manalich said some of the miners probably will be able to leave the hospital Thursday — earlier than projected — but many had been unable to sleep, wanted to talk with families and were anxious. One was treated for pneumonia, and two needed dental work.
“They are not ready to have a moment’s rest until the last of their colleagues is out,” he said.