Fifteen of the 33 miners trapped deep in a Chilean mine have been hauled to the surface, where they emerged smiling and eager to meet family members they have been separated from for more than two months.
Victor Segovia, a 48-year-old electrician, was the 15th man to be rescued safely from the mine near Copiapo just after 11 a.m. ET Wednesday.
Victor Zamora, the 14th man to arrive on the surface, was not a miner. The mechanic had been sent down just before the collapse to fix a vehicle.
Eighteen miners remain underground, along with some rescue workers who were sent down to provide assistance from below.
The 13th miner rescued, Carlos Barrios, 27, a part-time miner and part-time taxi driver, didn’t want to go to work on the day of the collapse because he had a premonition of the disaster, with dreams of rocks falling, according to family members.
Leave your message for the miners
Mario Sepulveda Espina, the second miner to reach the surface, told a Chilean television station the ordeal was the hardest thing he has ever faced in his life but his faith got him through it.
“I was with God, and I was with the devil,” he said through a translator. “But God won, I held onto God’s hand, the best hand, and at no point in time … did I doubt that God wouldn’t get me out of there.”
The first rescue began at 10:55 p.m. ET Tuesday, when Florencio Avalos, 31, was raised through a rescue shaft while strapped inside a 190-by-54-centimetre metal capsule.
After weeks of waiting and preparation, it took just 16 minutes to lift him out of the San Jose gold and copper mine.
“His seven-year-old son and his wife were waiting beside the rescue capsule,” Connie Watson of CBC News said from Chile.
“Before it got there the son was just sobbing and sobbing, and that had almost everyone else feeling the same.”
Avalos, who often acted as a cameraman after officials sent cameras down a tunnel, greeted his family and hugged his rescuers and Chilean President Sebastian Pinera before being escorted into a medical triage centre set up on site.
“He looked in really good shape,” Watson said early Wednesday morning. “It was the start of what’s been a very successful process.”
Potential panic and stress attacks among the miners are the rescuers’ main concerns, but there are also fears that falling rocks could wedge the escape capsule in the rescue shaft, jeopardizing the operation.
Longest underground survival
The miners, who were trapped underground on Aug. 5, are being winched more than 600 metres to the surface through a narrow shaft, which took weeks to drill.
They have survived more time trapped underground than anyone on record, and the world has been captivated by their endurance and unity as officials carefully planned their rescue.
Before the rescue operation began, crews ran tests by lowering an empty capsule down the shaft and raising it before sending it back down with a rescue worker inside to help prepare the miners for their trip to the surface.
Claudio Yanez, a 34-year-old drill operator whose wife proposed while he was stuck underground, was lifted out Wednesday morning, the eighth man to reach the surface.
Mario Gomez, the ninth man to step into the sun after months in the dark, fell to his knees to pray after he stepped out of the capsule.
Gomez, 63, was the oldest man trapped underground. He has worked as a miner since he was 12 years old and was considering retirement in November.
The capsule, dubbed the Phoenix, was expected to move at a speed of 0.7 metres per second, but can be pulled as fast as three metres per second if needed. Two additional capsules were built to serve as backup if necessary.
The fittest, more stable and experienced miners were the first to be hauled out of the mine because they were best prepared to handle any initial glitches during the rescue, officials said.
The next men winched out of the mine would be those who were weak, ill or dealing with psychological issues, officials said.
Doctors said the miners could suffer nausea and heart palpitations and were concerned about the risk of blood clotting and heart attacks. Aspirin had been sent down to the men earlier Tuesday to thin their blood.
“The spinning they were worried about — where the men would get nauseous and have heart palpitations — that doesn’t seem to have happened,” Watson said.
Miners monitored during ascent
The miners are being closely monitored from the moment they go in the capsule. They had been given a high-protein liquid diet donated by NASA, designed to keep them from vomiting as the capsule rotates.
A video camera in the capsule is used to monitor for panic attacks. The miner uses an oxygen mask and has two-way voice communication.
They also wear sweaters because of the shift in climate from about 30 C underground to near freezing on the surface after nightfall. They are also wearing sunglasses.
After medical checks and visits with family members selected by the miners, the men will be flown to hospital in Copiapo, a 10-minute ride away. Two floors were prepared for giving the miners physical and psychological exams, and the men will be kept under observation in a ward as dark as a movie theatre.
The last miner scheduled to leave the mine is 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.
With files from The Associated Press