By: GiGi Diaz
After being trapped half a mile underground for 69 days, Florencio Avalos was the first of 33 Chilean miners to reach the surface this Tuesday at 12:12AM local time. Moments later, Mario Sepúlveda, the second to be rescued, took the stage by running out towards the crowds chanting “Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le!” and presenting those on the surface with souvenir rocks from the depths of the mine he called home for the previous two months. Both men emerged to hugs from their respective wives who waited anxiously alongside President Sebastian Piñera, Chilean First Lady Cecilia Morel, and various engineers, all of whom made the rescue possible more than a month earlier than initially planned. By 9:30AM local time, 11 miners had safely made the half-mile bumpy ride to the surface inside the Fenix 2, a 22 inch-wide metal capsule specially designed to bring the men to safety.
The 33 miners survived a cave-in of 700,000 tons of rock August 5th. For 17 days after the collapse, their fate was uncertain and expectations of finding them alive were slim, as per Mining Minister Laurence Golborne. What was intended to be a mere 10-hour shift mining for copper and gold turned out to be a life-changing event for the victims, the mining industry, Chile, and the rest of the world, which kept constant vigil as the health, sanity, and escape of these men were in question.
During the 69 day underground confinement the men lost considerable weight and were living off emergency rations, some also having to deal with previous health conditions aside from those that would arise as a result of the accident. Upon being found, NASA, the Chilean Health Minister, and Chilean Navy officers came together to evaluate and nurse the miners back to health using tubes, known as “palomas,” through which they lowered vaccines, food, letters from loved ones, and even a video projection system on which the miners enjoyed soccer matches and recorded movies.
Among the first to be rescued were 19 year-old Jimmy Sanchez, the youngest of the group; 63 year-old Mario Gomez, the oldest; and Bolivian miner Carlos Mamani, the only foreigner in the group who shouted “Gracias, Chile!” upon exiting the escape capsule.
Despite all the risks, the operation has proven successful and unprecedented when compared to similar rescues. “You can be good and you can be lucky. And they’ve been good and lucky,” David McAteer, director of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration, said to AP just before the operation commenced. Going forward, there is nothing but hope and prayers that the remaining Chilean miners continue on this “good and lucky” streak.