Brave mission accomplished as hero rescuer is last man out
Safety expert tells of 'unforgettable experience' saving trapped men
He waved to the camera, took a bow, then clambered into the last capsule out of the San Jose mine. The final man out, Manuel Gonzalez, yesterday told of the "unforgettable experience" of helping each of the 33 miners to reach safety after they had spent nearly 10 weeks underground in stifling 30C heat.
Mr Gonzalez, a mine safety expert from the state firm, was chosen as the first man to go down the shaft and give the miners their instructions, and stay there until the last man had left.
On the way down late on Tuesday, Mr Gonzalez made safety inspections of the rock and checked telecoms equipment to the surface. He said what hit him was the heat: all the miners were wearing shorts, while he was in his protective orange overalls.
"When they saw me everybody hugged me and congratulated me for becoming the first one," he said yesterday. "I thought if I stayed here for 24 hours it would be very hot, but they had done it for 70 days. They had fantastic organisation in the mine."
Mr Gonzalez said he was just one of 16 or 17 men who could have done the job. Once he was chosen, Mr Gonzalez, a veteran of more than 20 years in the mining industry, said he was in a hurry to get to the bottom of the mine.
"I wanted to see them," he said. "I wanted to get to the bottom of the mine. Our mission was to rescue them quickly.
"In the rescue mission, the first one to go in is the last to go out. In about 25 hours we completed the operation.
"Especially in the beginning we were very happy. I don't know if you could see but everyone was clapping when the miners were going up."
He paid tribute to the organisation of the miners underground. "Lots of jokes were exchanged and they experienced an incredible comradeship; they never lost hope.
"They had very good leaders who kept the group together," he said. All the people who know mining know that we are a special race."
The two shafts that never broke through will be permanently sealed. The one that did will be temporarily sealed until a decision is made on what to do with it, though the mining minster, Laurence Golborne, alluded yesterday to the potential historic importance of the mine.
As for his bow to the camera, Mr Gonzalez said: "It was like saying this mission has been completed successfully."
Most of the men are recovering in the hospital from their two-month ordeal.
Some of the miners, who are undergoing tests at Copiapo Hospital, are recovering satisfactorily from infections and minor surgery and one from pneumonia, the hospital's deputy director, Jorge Montes , said in televised remarks.
President Sebastian Pinera also visited them yesterday.
"The 33 miners had a good night and are happy to be back on the surface," Mr Montes said. "We don't see any problem from a medical point of view."