SAN JOSE MINE, Chile – Trapped miners have emerged like clockwork in Chile as the world watches.
The anxiety that had accompanied the final days of preparation melted away at 12:11 a.m. when the stoutest of the 33 miners, Florencio Avalos, emerged from the missile-like rescue capsule, smiling broadly after his half-mile journey to the surface.
Rescues will continue every 45 minutes for the rest of the day on Wednesday, with the final rescues after midnight.
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.
The most ebullient of the bunch came out second, an hour later.
“I think I had extraordinary luck. I was with God and with the devil. And I reached out for God,” said Mario Sepulveda as he awaited the air force helicopter ride to a nearby hospital where all the miners were to spend 48 hours under medical observation.
By midmorning, 13 men had been pulled from the mine at a methodical pace in roughly 10 hours.
As it traveled down and up the 2,041-foot escape shaft, the capsule was not rotating as much as officials expected, allowing for faster trips, Health Minister Jaime Manalich said.
The miners have survived longer trapped underground than anyone on record. For 17 days after 700,000 tons of rock collapsed Aug. 5 and sealed the men in the lower reaches of the mine, no one knew if they were alive. The world was captivated by their endurance and unity as officials carefully planned their rescue.
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.”
All-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, 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, Lilianette 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.