Originally published October 13, 2010 at 6:42 a.m., updated October 13, 2010 at 10:27 a.m.
More than half the 33 miners trapped for months in the depths of Chile's San Jose Mine emerged safely Wednesday to the jubilation of relatives and a captivated world as rescue crews prepared to bring up those still underground.
The miners ascended to the surface like clockwork at a rate of one or two an hour. They emerged looking healthier than many had expected, embracing their wives and children and looking remarkably composed after languishing for 69 days.
Miners rescued two months after collapse
Omar Reygadas was the 17th miner pulled to safety. The 56-year-old widower was greeted by joyous shouts from onlookers as he reached the surface.
The anxiety that had accompanied the final few days of preparation melted away at 12:11 a.m. local time when the stoutest of the 33 miners, Florencio Avalos, emerged from the missile-like "Phoenix" rescue capsule smiling broadly after his half-mile journey to the surface. In a din of cheers, he hugged his sobbing 7-year-old son and wife and then President Sebastian Pinera, who has been deeply involved in an effort that had become a matter of national pride.
Annie Murphy, reporting for NPR, described the scene as Avalos emerged: "Everyone's watching on a huge screen and then there's this slight pause, as if people almost can't believe seeing this guy come up, and then everyone just broke out into cheering and screaming and hugging each other."
Jubilant bystanders chanted, "Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le!"
Some of the miners were animated as they emerged, others quieter. But all of them were visibly grateful to be above ground. The most ebullient of the bunch came out second, an hour later.
Mario Sepulveda's shouts were heard even before the capsule surfaced. After hugging his wife, he jokingly handed souvenir rocks from the mine to laughing rescuers. Then he bounded out behind other officials behind a barrier and thrust a fist upward like a prizefighter.
"I think I had extraordinary luck. I was with God and with the devil, and I reached out for God," Sepulveda said later as he awaited an air force helicopter ride to a nearby hospital, where all miners were to spend 48 hours under medical observation.
On the way up, the men were monitored by video for any sign of panic. They also had oxygen masks, dark glasses to protect their eyes from unfamiliar daylight and sweaters for the jarring climate change — subterranean swelter to the chillier air above.
The miners have survived more time trapped underground than anyone on record.
Chile exploded in joy and relief at the news of the first rescue in the Atacama desert, about 20 miles from the Pacific coast.
In the capital, Santiago, motorists blared their horns in triumph. And in the nearby regional capital of Copiapo, from which 24 of the miners hail, the mayor canceled school so parents and children could "watch the rescue in the warmth of the home."
The methodical pace at which the miners were being hoisted through the earth matched predictions that the rescue operation would be complete in about 36 hours, barring major glitches.
After the fifth miner, the rescuers paused to lubricate the spring-loaded wheels that give the 13-foot-tall capsule a smooth ride through the 2,041-foot escape shaft. Then they brought up the sixth and seventh.
The entire operation was meticulously choreographed, with no expense spared in bringing in topflight drillers and equipment — and drilling three separate holes into the copper and gold mine.
Mining is Chile's lifeblood, providing 40 percent of state earnings, and Pinera tapped his mining minister and the operations chief of state-owned Codelco, the country's biggest company, to lead the rescue effort. It went so well that its managers abandoned what a legion of journalists had deemed an ultraconservative plan for restricting images of the rescue.
A huge Chilean flag intended to obscure the hole from view was moved aside so that hundreds of cameras perched on a hill above could record the rescue attempt, which was broadcast live on state TV.
That included the surreal moment when the capsule dropped into the chamber for the first time.
"I think everyone really started to understand what was happening here when the first rescuer went down," Murphy reported.
"There was just this incredible moment where I was with a group of family members when everyone just caught their breath as they saw this man disappear into this very, very small hole in the earth," she said. "And then about 30 minutes later, maybe a little longer, the first miner came to the surface."
Thousands of feet underground, bare-chested miners, most stripped down to shorts because of the subterranean swelter, mobbed the rescuer who emerged to serve as their guide to freedom.
Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.