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Emotional Chile miners' rescue in final stages

By Marc Burleigh

SAN JOSE MINE, Wednesday 13 October 2010 (AFP) - The rescue of 33 miners trapped underground in Chile for 10 long weeks sped towards a successful finale Wednesday with all but a handful of the men already on the surface, triggering joy around the world at their miraculous salvation.

Proud Chilean officials believed the last of the miners could be freed before midnight (0300 GMT Thursday), winched up in a narrow, missile-like capsule dubbed the Phoenix.

Euphoria met the start of the rescue operation early Wednesday, with horn blasts, flashing lights, congratulations, and a global, shared sense that human ingenuity, this time, had cheated death.

The miners stepping out of the capsule after a 15-minute ascent up a 622-meter (2,041-foot) escape shaft pumped their fists towards the sky they had not seen for 69 days, or dropped to their knees in prayer.

"I have changed, I am a different man," said Mario Gomez, the ninth to be rescued and, at 63, the oldest of the group.

"I have been with God and with the devil," said the second miner to be saved, Mario Sepulveda, 40. "I seized the hand of God, it was the best hand. I always knew God would get us out of there."

As the sun set Wednesday over the San Jose gold and copper mine where the dramatic event was unfolding, 28 miners had been brought to the surface, and only five were left waiting their turn -- well ahead of schedule.

"We hope to successfully complete this process by the end of the day," Mining Minister Laurence Golborne told reporters at the mine. "We moved very rapidly, faster than originally planned."

A team of six rescue specialists had been sent down to the miners to help them get harnessed in the Phoenix capsule.

They would be the last to leave, in the first hours of Thursday, ending the rescue.

The inspirational operation has mesmerized Chile and audiences worldwide, with an estimated billion people glued to television screens and the Internet.

Words of congratulation poured in from presidents Barack Obama of the United States, Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, as well as Pope Benedict XVI and other dignitaries.

The US space agency NASA, which provided advice on how to sustain the miners during their long wait underground, hailed "the courageous miners" and their rescuers.

First out of the mine was 31-year-old Florencio Avalos, who hugged his young son and wife and thanked President Sebastian Pinera and other officials.

Sepulveda, the second rescued, quickly became a media darling for his rousing, energetic appearance that earned him the nickname "Super Mario."

Gomez said his life had been transformed.

"Often something has to happen to you before you stop and think and understand that you only have one life, and then you think what you have to change," he told Pinera.

Others following included the only non-Chilean in the group, Bolivian miner Carlos Mamani, 23, who turned down an offer from visiting Bolivian President Evo Morales to return to La Paz with him, preferring to remain in Chile.

Also brought to the top was Jimmy Sanchez, at 19 the youngest of the miners, and Esteban Rojas, a 44-year-old who had promised a church wedding to his long-term partner Jessica Yanez.

Yonni Barrios, the 21st miner to be hauled to the surface, stepped out of the escape capsule to be hugged by... his longtime girlfriend, Susana Valenzuela, not his wife, whom he had also invited.

"It turned out he had also asked the other lady and I have decency. One thing is clear: it's her or me," the wife, Marta Salinas, was quoted as telling Chilean media. She nevertheless said: "I"m glad he's safe, it's a miracle from God."

All the men were pale and wore special dark sunglasses to protect their weakened eyes from the natural light.

They were immediately taken to a field hospital at the mine for tests, and several were then flown to a regional hospital in the nearest town of Copiapo, where two floors were reserved for them.

Health Minister Jaime Manalich said the healthiest could be discharged Thursday.

Doctors at Copiapo hospital said the 11 miners at the hospital were doing "better than any prognosis," with two exceptions -- Sepulveda and Gomez, both of whom suffered from silicosis, an incurable disease common among miners in which inhaled dust causes lesions in the lungs, making breathing difficult.

Manalich also said two unnamed miners would have to undergo general anesthesia for surgery on "very serious" dental infections.

The miners' relatives, camped at the entrance to the mine, cheered and wept as each escape was captured by the cameras of 2,000 international journalists.

Several of the families, who had already welcomed back their loved ones from the pit, said they would not leave until all 33 miners were hauled up.

"We're going to stay until the last," said Florencio Avalos's father Alfonso, whose other son, Renan, was the 25th miner to be rescued.

Related stories:
Chile's joy spreads to the world as all 33 miners saved
Jubilation as last miner rescued in Chile
Rescued Chilean miners are healthy, with exceptions
Rescued: Chilean miners taste freedom at last
Cheers and tears as first miners emerge in Chile
Who are these heroic Chile miners?
Media mayhem mars family's joy at Chile mine rescue
World is captive audience for Chile mine rescue
Chronology of the Chile mine disaster (UPDATED)
Concern for psychological welfare when Chile miners emerge
First Chile miner back on surface after 10-week ordeal
First Chile miners set for Tuesday rescue
Hopes and fears as Chile miners prepare for rescue

Photo story:
Seeing light again

MySinchew 2010.10.14


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