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First Chile miners set for Tuesday rescue

By Marc Burleigh

SAN JOSE MINE, Tuesday 12 October 2010 (AFP) - The first of 33 miners trapped in a Chilean mine was set to emerge Tuesday after more than two months deep underground, beginning a spectacular rescue in the glare of the world's media.

"We hope to see... at least one of the miners on the surface" before Tuesday is over, Mining Minister Laurence Golborne told reporters at the San Jose gold and copper mine in northern Chile.

The rescue was to continue over the next two days, until the last of the miners was winched up in a special metal cage from their tunnel 622 meter (2,041 feet) under a mountain.

Florencio Avalos, a 31-year-old miner who was second-in-charge of the trapped group, was chosen to be the first to be brought to the surface, a government source told AFP.

Married with two children, relatives said his "very rational" demeanor and athleticism were probably the reason he was selected, because officials wanted a capable pioneer first up the escape shaft.

"He is the strongest," his relieved mother, Maria Silva, told AFP, adding "I'm going to hug him and kiss him a lot" when he emerges.

Avalos will be leaving behind a brother, Renan, 29, among the other miners to be subsequently hauled up.

The two miners to follow Florencio Avalos to the surface were Mario Sepulveda, 39, an electrical specialist who performed in many of the videos the miners made of themselves, and then Carlos Mamani, the only Bolivian in the group of the 33 trapped miners, the government source said.

The operation was to begin with the first of five rescue specialists being sent down to the miners in the cage to prepare Avalos for his ride up. The other four specialists were to alternate with other miners ascending.

All the activity was unfolding under live coverage by 2,000 international journalists camped out at the mine in a tent city that also sheltered 800 of the miners' relatives.

They would all be alerted to the imminent arrival of each miner on the surface by a blaring siren and flashing light that would also tell medical teams to be ready to greet the cage.

The operation has taken on symbolic overtones, as noted by the name given to the metal cage -- the "Phoenix" -- and officials' descriptions of the rescue as a rebirth for the miners.

"Every time that a miner is about to re-emerge on the surface, the mine will be giving birth to one of its 'children' and a siren will sound a note," said Health Minister Jaime Manalich.

President Sebastian Pinera, whose popularity has been boosted by his no-expenses-barred approach to the rescue, was at the mine to greet the first to emerge.

Officials have progressively advanced the moment the first miners would be brought up.

Initially, they forecast Christmas as the likely rescue deadline, then cut that back to November and finally October before one of three rescue drills completed its escape shaft last weekend.

Tests on the shaft wrapped up ahead of schedule and on Tuesday officials said a midnight (0300 GMT Wednesday) start to the rescue would be brought forward by as much as four hours, to as early as 8:00 pm (2300 GMT).

Each miner was to make a tense solo ascent of around 15 to 20 minutes as the cage was winched up the equivalent height of two Eiffel Towers stacked on top of each other.

Another 25 to 30 minutes needed to drop the cage down the shaft again, with a little time required to strap each miner into the contraption, meaning a total of one hour was estimated for each man's salvation.

There, again, officials have given themselves leeway, saying they expected the operation to be completed not in the 33 hours technically possible, but in 48 hours -- by late Thursday.

Each miner will be greeted by up to three family members and waiting doctors before being flown to a regional hospital for at least two days of check-ups.

The miners -- 32 Chileans and one Bolivian -- have spent 68 days trapped underground, a record-breaking ordeal.

They became trapped on August 5 when the upper galleries of their copper and gold mine collapsed. For 17 days they were all but given up for dead before a probe drill found them.

Since then, Chilean rescuers have worked furiously to sustain them, even asking for NASA's help.

Food, water, oxygen, entertainment and communication lines were dropped to them through probe holes to get them through their prolonged captivity in hot, dank conditions that they have described as "hell."

When the miners do make it to the surface, they will leave behind dark isolation for a blaze of publicity normally reserved for movie stars or sporting heroes.

Chilean media reports suggest the men are anticipating lucrative book and film deals that may limit what they end up saying to the waiting news media.

MySinchew 2010.10.13


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