The great escape
Published 14/10/2010 | 05:00
For Mario Sepulveda, the longest shift ended soon after 1am in the chill desert night of northern Chile. His exuberant return above ground captured the joy of a nation at the climax of an extraordinary saga of survival and defiance that has transfixed the world.
Emerging from the depths of the earth 69 days after a huge rockfall entombed him and 32 fellow miners almost a kilometre underground, Mr Sepulveda's shouts could be heard even before he reached the surface.
There, he hugged his wife, Elvira, and asked her, with a mischievous smile, "how's the dog" before pulling pieces of rock from a shoulder bag and handing them as mementoes to President Sebastian Pinero and other dignitaries.
He then turned to the ranks of rescue workers to exchange high-fives, punching the air as he led them in chants of "Viva Chile!" Only then, and extremely reluctantly, did he allow himself to be strapped into a medical gurney, as the rescue protocol required, to be wheeled off for health checks.
"I was with God and with the devil. They fought over me but God won," he reflected moments later. "I think I had extraordinary luck."
As he waited with his family to be flown by helicopter to hospital in the nearby town of Copiapo, where all the men are to undergo 48 hours' observation and tests, he added: "I have buried 40 years of my life down there. Now I want to live much longer with my family -- my son, my daughter, my wife."
Mr Sepulveda, a natural showman dubbed 'Super Mario' by the Chilean media after the Nintendo computer game character, has been offered television work after his colourful voice-overs of videos describing the men's life beneath the ground, including his own 40th birthday party.
Yet, he insisted he did not want to be feted as a celebrity, adding: "I would like you to treat me as what I am -- a miner."
He had been the second miner to emerge from the torpedo-shaped rescue capsule, after Florencio Avalos, who emerged with the broadest of grins on his face to be greeted by his sobbing son and wife. One by one, with clockwork precision, his fellow miners followed from the depths of the earth as night turned into the day.
It was with good reason that the narrow, caged, rescue pod, specially designed by Chilean naval engineers, was named Phoenix -- after the mythical bird that rose from the ashes.
At Camp Hope, the vigil site near the mouth of the San Jose mine, families clung to each other, embracing and weeping as they watched the yellow winch pulling the pod from the ground, time and again.
But perhaps most remarkable were the pictures broadcast from almost a kilometre beneath the surface where the men had been trapped.
There, every 45 minutes or so, in a subterranean tunnel that so nearly became a tomb, the thin capsule nudged out of the 26- inch wide escape shaft, next to a Chilean flag draped across the rock wall.
It looked like grainy footage from an old Hollywood film about a mission to the centre of the earth. But this was a real-life story much more sensational than any fiction as the miners survived longer underground than anyone else in history.
Bare-chested, and stripped to their shorts and boots because of the stifling heat and humidity at this depth, the men mobbed the first rescuer to reach them and chanted the now familiar refrain "Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le! Viva Chile!"
But as each new man to be rescued changed into a green boiler suit, they prepared for the extractions with a calm that contrasted dramatically with the frenzied attention to their fate across the globe.
At the minehead, the men took their first breath of fresh air for seven weeks in front of a welcoming party of close relatives and a phalanx of officials led by Mr Pinero and Laurence Golborne, the mining minister who has become the face of the rescue mission.
Even in the dark of night, they were wearing wraparound sunglasses to protect their retinas from exposure after such a long period underground. Otherwise, they seemed in surprisingly good physical shape as they were released from the capsule after the 16-minute ascent through the pitch-dark shaft.
From the youngest, 19-year-old Jimmy Sanchez who was terrified of spirits in the dark; to the oldest, Mario Gomez (63), a veteran miner who lost three fingers in a previous accident, the look of relief and joy exploded across their faces.
Claudio Yanez plunged into the arms of Cristina Nunez, his partner who proposed to him, successfully, while he was underground. And Victor Zamora locked lips with his wife Yesica, who is four months' pregnant with their second child.
Operation San Lorenzo -- named after the patron saint of miners -- officially began when the first rescue team member was lowered into the ground at 11.13pm Chilean time on Tuesday.
It was nearly seven weeks earlier that the men were entombed underground by a cave-in as they ate lunch together during their shift on August 5 at the copper and gold mine in the Atacama Desert, 450 miles north of Santiago.
And amid yesterday's joyous scenes, it is salutary to note how close this story was to ending in disaster as, for 17 days, rescuers tried to reach the miners with boreholes drilled from the surface.
It was during this long and agonising wait that family members gathered and established their makeshift tent community of Camp Hope.
The first moment of national celebration came on August 22 when a borehole broke through into the cramped shelter where the miners had survived on two days' emergency rations of fruit and tuna.
Rescuers only knew they had reached the men when the drill returned to the surface with a handwritten note taped to its tip. "We are safe in the shelter, the 33" were the words that signalled the "miracle at the mine" was under way.
That breakthrough sparked the longest and most complex mining rescue in history as first one, then two and finally three different drills -- the so-called Plans A, B and C -- carved their way through the rock toward the incarcerated men.
It was initially feared that it could take until Christmas to free the men. But by earlier this month, it was clear that Plan B -- using a Schramm T-130 drill usually used to bore water wells -- was going to reach the men much earlier. The man at the controls of the plan B rig, Jeff Hart, was in Afghanistan drilling water wells for the US military when he got the call to fly to Chile.
"I will never do anything as important in my life again," said Mr Hart after the shaft reached the men on Saturday.
The drilling missions coincided with an unprecedented operation to keep the men fed, healthy and even entertained via two narrow boreholes that became their lifelines.
For 24 hours a day, plastic tubes known as palomas (doves) ferried meals, medicines, letters, clothes and videos to the miners.
The men organised themselves into three groups of 11, working morning, afternoon and evening shifts to man the paloma, operate their underground community and clear away debris caused by the drilling.
The miners spent their last few nerve-wracking hours below ground preparing for the momentous journey into the world above saying prayers and singing hymns.
On Tuesday, they penned the last of their dispatches from the deep. The letters to family members revealed their anxiety ahead of their rescue, not only of the trip to the surface itself but what awaited them there.
"I know that when it's my turn, nerves are going to hit with a vengeance," wrote Jimmy Sanchez. "I have suffered enough down here and don't want to suffer anymore. I hope that when it's my turn, everything will be okay." But his fears were supplanted when he became the fifth man to emerge.
In the main square in the nearby city of Copiapo, where many of the men live, each rescue was marked with rapturous cheers by residents watching the scene from the mine on large screens erected for the occasion.
The joy was shared around the globe as the exhilarating story was broadcast live around the world, 21st-Century technology conveying the excitement from one of the most remote and desolate spots on the planet.
As darkness fell last night, the final miners patiently awaited their turn as their families kept warm around campfires.
Their underground ordeal may be ending, but the men face many new challenges as they adjust to life in the real world and the glare of media attention.
But for now, those concerns are on hold. As the men are released from hospital over the next 48 hours, a weekend of parties, celebrations and reunions awaits. (© Daily Telegraph, London)