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Rescuers Pull Last Trapped Chilean Miner To Surface

The last of the Chilean miners, the foreman who held them together when they were feared lost, was raised from the depths of the earth Wednesday night -- a joyous ending to a 69-day ordeal that riveted the world. No one has ever been trapped so long and survived.

Luis Urzua ascended smoothly through 2,000 feet of rock, completing a 22 1/2-hour rescue operation that unfolded with remarkable speed and flawless execution. Before a crowd of about 2,000 people, he became the 33rd miner to be rescued.

"We have done what the entire world was waiting for," he told the Chilean president immediately after his rescue. "The 70 days that we fought so hard were not in vain. We had strength, we had spirit, we wanted to fight, we wanted to fight for our families, and that was the greatest thing."


As Urzua hugged and shook hands with rescue workers, he said, "Thank you. Thank you for everything. You have been excellent."

The rescue workers who talked the men through the final hours were then hoisted to the surface one by one.

When Urzua stepped out of the capsule, he hugged Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and shook hands with him and said they had prevailed over difficult circumstances. With the last miner by his side, the president led the crowd in singing the national anthem.

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.

I think I had extraordinary luck. I was with God and with the devil, and I reached out for God.

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 from 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.

Doctors who completed preliminary examinations on the men said they found very few problems. Several of the men reportedly said that after 10 weeks of daily exercises, they were actually in better physical condition than when the mine collapsed.

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.

The men have become national heroes in Chile. Some 1,500 journalists from around the world were on hand to report on the rescue. Literary agents and film producers were also hoping to seal a deal with some or all of the miners.

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.

President Obama called the rescue a tribute to the unity and resolve of the Chilean people who have inspired the world. Speaking in the White House Rose Garden, he said that families' tears reflected the relief and joy of people everywhere.

"Let me also commend so many people of goodwill, not only in Chile but also around the United States and around the world who are lending a hand in this rescue effort," Obama said. "From the NASA team that helped design the escape vehicle to American companies that manufactured and delivered parts of the rescue drill to the American engineer who flew in from Afghanistan to operate the drill."

Freelance journalist Pascale Bonnefoy told NPR from Santiago that the Chilean government "has put every effort and every resource into this."

Although some have criticized Pinera for trying to score political points from the rescue, "the government as a whole did what it had to do and did it well," she told All Things Considered.

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.

But the owners of the mine have been conspicuously absent since the disaster began more than two months ago.

"The owners of the mine haven't shown up," Bonnefoy said. "They haven't said a word."

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report

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