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First of 33 Trapped Chilean Miners Lifted to Safety After 69 Days Underground

Nathan Vanderklippe

Chilean miner Osman Araya kisses his wife Angelica as he steps out of the Phoenix capsule. Araya is the sixth miner of 33 to be lifted from underground. (Martin Bernetti / AFP - Getty Images)

After 69 days, the deep Chilean tomb is giving up its captives.

Remarkable scenes of rescue have now become commonplace at this isolated spot in the Chilean desert.

In eight hours, nine men have emerged from the depths of the mine that has held them and 24 co-workers hostage for more than two months.

But even amid the cheering that continues to great each successful evacuation, the salvation of Mario Gomez stood out on a night - and now morning - filled with overwhelming emotion.

Mr. Gomez, at 63, was expected to be among the most fragile of the miners. He was expected to wear a full oxygen mask as he rose to the surface, as an added measure of protection for a man who is the oldest among the trapped and who suffers from black lung disease.

Moments before he reached the surface, a rescue worker asked him: "Have you got the mask on?"

His answer, delivered before he had even come into view, before he had stepped from his rescue capsule into the waiting arms of his wife, before he fell to the ground in prayer, arms outstretched to the sky: "No."

Five minutes later, after he had once again embraced his wife and then hugged waiting politicians, he was helped onto a stretcher and finally outfitted with an oxygen mask.

Medical teams continue to every precaution with the men as they emerge. But after 69 days of being trapped, they appear to be in remarkably good condition - a fact that has delivered an even greater sense of relief to the sleep-starved families who have refused to rest until the last man surfaces. That could happen within another day and a half, Chilean health minister Jaime Manalich said early Tuesday.

The rescue operation has proceeded nearly as smoothly as could be expected by the team of more than 1,000 that spent so long planning this moment. Crews have had to adjust the door to the capsule, and make other small changes along the way, but the miners have been evacuated almost exactly as planned.

Delirious celebration erupted across "Camp Hope," the encampment of waiting families and media, as the first miner rescued, Florencio Avalos, emerged.

Dozens of balloons floated into the night sky as Mr. Avalos reached the surface, amid raucous cheering, airhorns and joyous chanting. Grown men wiped tears from their eyes as Mr. Avalos emerged from the capsule, walked to his wife and son and met each with a long, extraordinarily emotional hug.

Mr. Avalos was the first to be successfully rescued in a daring operation that will last, officials expect, for up to two days, as crews work to raise the 33 men - and five rescuers - to the surface in what local media are calling "The Great Rescue."

The final moments brought an atmosphere of extraordinary tension to the Avalos family, as relatives bit nails and wiped away anxious tears.

Much work remains and many men are still trapped - but for this moment, joy has washed over the barren desert mine that has been the source of such immense uncertainty and anxious waiting in the past few months.

"We're happy because soon it will be our son that comes up," said Antonia Godoy, whose son, Richard Villarroel, is 28th in line to be rescued - a position that could take many hours to reach.

Still, she said, watching the first miner surface was a moment all families cheered.

"It's incredible. Even though it wasn't our son, it was a pleasure to see."

Speaking as workers prepared to lift a second miner, the Chilean President addressed the country.

"However strongly nature beats us, Chile always knows how to stand up and continue walking," said Mr. Pinera, who pledged to construct a memorial at the mine site.

"In the face of adversity, we're capable of great things."

A little under an hour later, so-called "Camp Hope" erupted in another round of cheering as Mario Supelveda emerged from the capsule. He came out beaming, the second to be rescued, and handed out rocks from the mine before running to a row of watching rescue workers, who he led in a loud national chant.

Claudia Jiminez, the sister-in-law of trapped miner Omar Reygadas, couldn't suppress an "oooooh!" as Mr. Supelveda reached the surface.


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Though the clock ticked toward 2 a.m., neither she nor anyone else had any intention of turning in.

"We're going to see all the rescues," she said.

Miners' relatives were especially grateful to see the condition of the rescued men, who appeared hale and fit - anything but survivors of an agonizing wait in difficult conditions.

"I'm really happy that he came out standing, healthy and strong," said Janet Marin, sister-in-law of Dario Segovia, who stood watching the rescue, unbothered by the hour or the cold.

"I'm going to be here all night," she said.

Mr. Sepulveda jumped up and down as if to prove his strength before the medical team took him to a triage unit.

"I think I had extraordinary luck. ... I was with God and with the devil - and God took me," Mr. Sepulveda said later in a special interview room set up by the government.

He praised the rescue operation, saying: "It's incredible that they saved us from 700 meters below."

A third Chilean miner, Juan Illanes, followed after another hour, and then the lone Bolivian, Carlos Mamani, was pulled out.

Mr. Mamani was greeted by his wife, Veronica, with a hug and kiss that knocked off her white hardhat as Chile's president and first lady held small Bolivian flags. Mr. Mamani also gestured with both forefingers at the Chilean flag on his T-shirt and shouted "Gracias, Chile!" before a round of backslapping with rescuers.

Through the first eight rescues, the operation held to a schedule announced earlier to get all the miners out in about 36 hours.

The last miner out has been decided: Shift foreman Luis Urzua, whose leadership was credited for helping the men endure 17 days with no outside contact after the collapse.

Janette Marin, sister-in-law of miner Dario Segovia, said the order of rescue didn't matter.

"This won't be a success unless they all get out," she said, echoing the solidarity that the miners and people across Chile have expressed.

After the first capsule came out of the manhole-sized opening, Mr. Avalos emerged as bystanders cheered, clapped and broke into a chant of "Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le!" - the country's name.

Mr. Avalos gave a thumbs-up as he was led to an ambulance and medical tests following his more than two months deep in the gold and copper mine - the longest anyone has ever been trapped underground and survived.

Mr. Avalos, the 31-year-old second-in-command of the miners, was chosen to be first because he was in the best condition.

The rescue was carried live on all-news channels from the U.S. to Europe and the Middle East. Iran's state English-language Press TV followed events live until President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad touched down in Beirut on his first state visit there. But the coverage was interrupted with every new miner rescued.

The only media allowed to record them coming out of the shaft will be a government photographer and Chile's state TV channel, whose live broadcast was delayed by 30 seconds or more to prevent the release of anything unexpected. Photographers and camera operators were on a platform more than 90 metres away.

At a news conference, Chile's health minister said the first eight miners rescued were all in good health.

Jaime Manalich says that no miner has needed any special medication, not even the diabetic among them.

With files from The Associated Press


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