Fresh air and freedom were just hours away Tuesday for the first of 33 miners trapped a half-mile underground for 69 days, men whose endurance and unity captivated the world as the Chilean government meticulously prepared their rescue. No one in the history of mining has been trapped so long and survived.
The first miner was expected to be lifted to the surface late Tuesday in a custom-made capsule. President Sebastian Pinera was at the mine, waiting to greet him.
"We made a promise to never surrender, and we kept it," Pinera said at about 5:45 pm local time, shortly before two rescue workers were expected to go down to prepare the miners for their trip. The president said the first miner will be brought up about two hours later.
Authorities: One miner to be pulled up per hour (Photo: AP)
Chile has taken extensive precautions to ensure the miners' health and privacy, sending down Navy special forces paramedics to prepare them for the trip and using a screen to block the top of the shaft from more than 1,000 journalists at the scene.
The miners will be ushered through an inflatable tunnel, like those used in sports stadiums, to an ambulance for a trip of several hundred meters to a triage station for an immediate medical check. They will gather with a few family members, in an area also closed to the media, before being transported by helicopter to a hospital.
Each ride up is expected to take about 20 minutes, and authorities expect they will be able to haul up roughly one miner an hour. The rescue of the last miner will end a national crisis that began when a cave-in sealed off the gold and copper mine Aug. 5.
The only media allowed to record them coming out of the shaft will be a government photographer and Chile's state television channel. Their images will be delayed about 30 seconds or more to prevent the release of anything unexpected.
As for the miners, they were kept busy Tuesday making final preparations "to keep their spirits up," Health Minister Jaime Manalich said. He added that they were doing well: "It remains a paradox; they're actually much more relaxed than we are."
'Families will be forever changed'
Rescuers finished reinforcing the top of the 622-meter escape shaft early Monday, and the four-meter tall capsule descended flawlessly in test runs. The white, blue and red capsule, the biggest of three built by Chilean navy engineers, was named Phoenix I for the mythical bird that rises from ashes.
After initial medical checks and visits with family members selected by the miners, the men will be airlifted to the regional hospital in Copiapo, roughly a 10-minute ride away. Two floors have been prepared where the miners will receive physical and psychological exams and be kept under observation in a ward as dark as a movie theater.
Families were urged to wait and prepare to greet the miners at home after a 48-hour hospital stay.
Officials have drawn up a secret list of which miners should come out first, but the order could change after paramedics and a mining expert first descend in the capsule to evaluate the men. First out will be the four miners best able to handle any difficulties and tell their comrades what to expect. Then, the 10 who are weakest or suffer from hypertension, diabetes, dental and respiratory infections and skin lesions from the mine's oppressive humidity.
Psychiatrists and other experts in surviving extreme situations predict their lives will be anything but normal, and that both the miners and their families have been forever changed by this experience.
Since Aug. 22, when a narrow bore hole broke through to their refuge and the miners stunned the world with a note, scrawled in red pen, that announced their survival, these families' lives have been exposed in ways they never imagined. Miners had to describe their physical and mental health in minute detail with teams of doctors and psychologists. And in some cases, when both wives and lovers claimed the same man, everyone involved had to face the consequences.
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