'I'm so happy!' Eight Chile miners gain freedom.'Hopefully the spirit of these miners will remain forever with us,' president says
Claudio Lagos, 34, known as "the smoker" by the group because he asked for cigarettes during his time trapped in the mine, is being loaded into the rescue capsule.
The paramedics can change the order of rescue based on a brief medical check once they're in the mine. First out will be those best able to handle any difficulties and tell their comrades what to expect. Then, the weakest and the ill — in this case, about 10 suffer from hypertension, diabetes, dental and respiratory infections and skin lesions from the mine's oppressive humidity. The last should be people who are both physically fit and strong of character.
Chile has taken extensive precautions to ensure the miners' privacy, using a screen to block the top of the shaft from the more than 1,000 journalists at the scene.
The miners were ushered through a tunnel built of metal containers to an ambulance for a trip of several hundred yards to a triage station for a medical check. They will then be taken by helicopter to a hospital.
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 300 feet away.
The worst technical problem that could happen, rescue coordinator Andre Sougarett told The Associated Press, is that "a rock could fall," potentially jamming the capsule partly up the shaft.
Panic attacks are the rescuers' biggest concern. The miners will not be sedated — they need to be alert in case something goes wrong. If a miner must get out more quickly, rescuers will accelerate the capsule to a maximum 3 meters per second, Health Minister Jaime Manalich said.
The rescue is risky simply because no one else has ever tried to extract miners from such depths, said Davitt McAteer, who directed the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration in the Clinton administration. A miner could get claustrophobic and do something to damage the capsule. Or a falling rock could wedge it in the shaft. Or the cable could get hung up. Or the rig that pulls the cable could overheat.
"You can be good and you can be lucky. And they've been good and lucky," McAteer told the AP. "Knock on wood that this luck holds out for the next 33 hours."
Mining Minister Laurence Golborne, whose management of the crisis has made him a media star in Chile, said authorities had already thought of everything.
"There is no need to try to start guessing what could go wrong. We have done that job," Golborne said. "We have hundreds of different contingencies."
As for the miners, Manalich said, "It remains a paradox — they're actually much more relaxed than we are."
Rescuers finished reinforcing the top of the 2,041-foot escape shaft Monday, and the 13-foot capsule descended flawlessly in tests. The capsule — the biggest of three built by Chilean navy engineers — was named Phoenix for the mythical bird that rises from ashes. It is painted in the white, blue and red of the Chilean flag.
The miners were to be closely monitored from the moment they're strapped in the capsule. They were given a high-calorie liquid diet donated by NASA, designed to keep them from vomiting as the capsule rotates 10 to 12 times through curves in the 28-inch-diameter escape hole.
A video camera in the escape capsule watched for panic attacks. The miners have oxygen masks and two-way voice communication.
Their pulse, skin temperature and respiration rate are constantly measured through a monitor around their abdomens. To prevent blood clotting from the quick ascent, they took aspirin and wore compression socks.
The miners also had sweaters for the shift in climate from about 90 degrees underground to near freezing on the surface after nightfall.
Engineers inserted steel piping at the top of the shaft, which is angled 11 degrees off vertical before plunging like a waterfall. Drillers had to curve the shaft to pass through "virgin" rock, narrowly avoiding collapsed areas and underground open spaces in the overexploited mine, which had operated since 1885.
After medical checks and visits with family members selected by the miners, the men will be flown to the hospital in Copiapo, a 10-minute ride away. Two floors were prepared where the miners will receive physical and psychological exams and be kept under observation in a ward as dark as a movie theater.
Chilean air force Lt. Col. Aldo Carbone said helicopter pilots were issued night-vision goggles but won't fly unless it is clear of the thick Pacific Ocean fog that rolls in at night.
Neighbors looked forward to barbecues and parties to replace the vigils held since their friends were trapped.
Urzua's neighbors told the AP he probably insisted on being the last one up.
"He's a very good guy — he keeps everybody's spirits up and is so responsible — he's going to see this through to the end," said neighbor Angelica Vicencio, who has led a nightly vigil outside the Urzua home in Copiapo.
U.S. President Barack Obama praised rescuers, who include many Americans. "While that rescue is far from over and difficult work remains, we pray that by God's grace, the miners will be able to emerge safely and return to their families soon," he said.
SOURCE: The Associated Press, CNN, Reuters and NBC News