The miners who spent 69 agonizing days deep under the Chilean earth were hoisted one by one to freedom Wednesday, their rescue moving with remarkable speed while their countrymen erupted in cheers and the world watched transfixed. Beginning at midnight and sometimes as quickly as once every 30 minutes, the men climbed into a slender cage nearly a half-mile underground and made a smooth ascent into fresh air. By early afternoon, two-thirds of the men - 22 of 33 - had been rescued. In a meticulously planned operation, they were monitored by video on the way up for any sign of panic. They 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.
They emerged looking healthier than many had expected and even clean-shaven, and at least one, Mario Sepulveda, the second to taste freedom, bounded out 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," he said as he awaited the air force helicopter ride to a nearby hospital where all the miners were to spend 48 hours under medical observation.
The operation moved past the halfway point with the rescue of the 17th miner, a 56-year-old electrician named Omar Reygadas who helped organize life underground. His fourth great-grandchild was born a month after the men were sealed into the mine's lower reaches by an Aug. 5 collapse of 700,000 tons of rock.
As it traveled down and up, down and up, the rescue capsule was not rotating as much inside the 2,041-foot escape shaft as officials expected, allowing for faster trips, and officials said the operation could be complete by sunrise Thursday, if not sooner. The anxiety that had accompanied the careful final days of preparation broke at 12:11 a.m., with the first rescue - Florencio Avalos, who emerged from the missile-like chamber and smiled broadly after his half-mile journey. 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. Avalos was followed an hour later by the most ebullient of the group, Sepulveda, whose shouts were heard even before the capsule peeked above the surface. He hugged his wife and handed out souvenir rocks from the mine to laughing rescuers.
Miners picked small groups of relatives to greet them at the surface. The 21st man pulled out, Johnny Barrios, 50, got a big hug and several kisses from his girlfriend Susana Valenzuela after reaching the surface. His wife, who only learned of Valenzuela's existence when the two women met at the camp where relatives of the miners kept vigil, stayed home. No one in recorded history has survived as long trapped underground as the 33 men. For the first 17 days, no one even knew whether they were alive. In the weeks that followed, the world was captivated by their endurance and unity. Health Minister Jaime Manalich told a news conference after eight miners were rescued that all of them were in good health, and none has required any special medication, not even the diabetic among them.
Chile exploded in joy and relief at the first, breakthrough rescue just after midnight in the coastal Atacama desert. In the capital, Santiago, a cacophony of car horns sounded. 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." News channels from North America to Europe and the Middle East carried live coverage. Pope Benedict XVI said in Spanish that he "continues with hope to entrust to God's goodness" the fate of the men. Iran's state English-language Press TV followed events live until President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad touched down in Lebanon on his first state visit there.
The images beamed worldwide were extraordinary: Grainy footage from beneath the earth showed each miner climbing into the 13-foot-tall capsule, then disappearing upward through an opening. Then a camera showed the pod steadily rising through the dark, smooth-walled tunnel.
After the fifth miner made his ascent - 19-year-old Jimmy Sanchez, the youngest and the father of a months-old baby - the rescuers paused to lubricate the spring-loaded wheels that gave the capsule a smooth ride through the shaft, then resumed the rescues. The ninth, Mario Gomez, who at 63 is the oldest miner, dropped to his knees after he emerged, bowed his head in prayer and clutched the Chilean flag. His wife, Liliane Ramirez, pulled him up from the ground and embraced him. Gomez is most experienced of the group, first entering a mine shaft to labor at age 12, and suffers from silicosis, a lung disease common to miners. He has been on antibiotics and bronchial inflammation medicine. Manalich said Gomez came up with a special oxygen mask.
The lone foreigner among the miners, Carlos Mamani of Bolivia, was visited at a nearby clinic by Pinera and Bolivian President Evo Morales. The miner could be heard telling the Chilean president how nice it was to breathe fresh air and see the stars. Most of the men emerged clean-shaven. Crews had lowered packages dubbed "palomas," Spanish for carrier pigeons, to get food and medicine to the men during their weeks underground, and in the days before rescue they were sent razors and shaving cream. The entire rescue operation was meticulously choreographed, with no expense spared in bringing in topflight drillers and equipment - and boring three separate holes into the copper and gold mine. Mining is Chile's lifeblood, providing 40 percent of state earnings, and Pinera put his mining minister and the operations chief of state-owned Codelco, the country's biggest company, in charge of the rescue.
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 that was to obscure the hole from view was moved aside so the hundreds of cameras perched on a hill above could record images that state TV also fed live. That included the surreal moment when the capsule dropped for the first time into the chamber, where the bare-chested miners, most stripped down to shorts because of the underground heat, mobbed the rescuer who emerged to serve as their guide to freedom. "This rescue operation has been so marvelous, so clean, so emotional that there was no reason not to allow the eyes of the world - which have been watching this operation so closely - to see it," a beaming Pinera told a news conference after Avalos was brought to the surface.
Avalos, the 31-year-old second-in-command of the miners, was chosen to be first out because he was in the best condition. When the capsule came out of the manhole-sized opening, Avalos stepped out as bystanders cheered, clapped and broke into a chant of the country's name - "Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le!"
The next three men out, including Mamani of Bolivia, followed because they were deemed the fittest of body and mind. The 10 to follow included miners with health problems such as high blood pressure, diabetes and skin ulcers.
The operation started just before midnight, when a Codelco rescuer made the sign of the cross and was lowered to the trapped men. A navy paramedic went down after Avalos came up.