By the time the capsule rose through the mineshaft's manhole-size opening shortly after midnight, the surrounding desert outside the northern Chilean city of CopiapÓ was as dark and cold as a sepulcher. But when 30-year-old Florencio Avalos emerged from 2,000 ft. (700 m) below the earth - where he and his 32 companions had been huddled since their gold and copper mine collapsed on Aug. 5 - and into the arms of his wife and children, an incandescent fiesta of life erupted on the surrounding dunes and rock piles. Men who had been all but buried alive for 69 days had just become the world's newest heroes.

The U.S. exulted 40 years ago when it brought its three Apollo 13 astronauts back safely from a disaster in space. Early Wednesday morning, Chile - and, for that matter, Latin America, a continent whose achievements are so often overshadowed by natural and political tragedy – can celebrate its own finest hour as it rescues its 33 miners from the abyss. Chileans, not known for exuberance, unleashed deafening cheers and chants through the chilly air above the San JosÉ mine - "Tonight we bring them back!" - along with confetti and balloons bearing the Chilean flag. The sight of Avalos' 7-year-old son, wearing a hard hat alongside Chilean President SebastiÁn PiÑera as he awaited his father, brought many at the mine, now known as Camp Hope, to tears. "We made a promise to never surrender, and we kept it," said PiÑera, who arrived at the site on Tuesday and earlier said that the miners' rescue would be "a true rebirth for us all." (See pictures of the rescue.)

It will be a prolonged one as well. The process of sending the 21-inch-wide (50 cm wide) capsule down the almost half-mile diagonal duct and then carrying each miner up to the surface will take as much as an hour or more. As a result, officials said they expected Operation San Lorenzo - named for the patron saint of miners - to last about 48 hours. Seventeen of the 33 miners have been rescued. Said the second, Mario SepÚlveda: "I think I had extraordinary luck. I was with God and with the devil. And I reached out for God."

The operation was made possible last Saturday when a giant U.S.-operated drill finally bored through the ceiling of the miners' 538-sq.-ft. (50 sq m) emergency shelter, a good month before most had expected. Since then, the men prepared for their rides up in the specially designed Phoenix capsule. They did squats and other leg-strengthening exercises to keep their blood circulation even for the 15-minute ascent; they ate only protein supplements and carbohydrates to avoid nausea. See TIME's top 10 miraculous rescues.)

Officials, doctors and psychologists who had been monitoring the miners throughout the more than two-month ordeal - a survival record in the annals of mining disasters - drew up an order of ascent. "Los mÁs hÁbiles" - a half-dozen of "the most able," like Avalos - would go first, since they could better handle any problems on the way up that rescue workers could then fix for the others going after them. The weaker members of the group would follow, and then the stronger.

Each would wear a special helmet equipped with communications gear so officials could keep in constant contact with them; an oxygen mask and a belt with vital-signs sensors around the torso; and dark glasses to keep their eyes, more like those of moles now than of humans, from being damaged in the sudden return to light. Liliana GÓmez, the wife of the oldest of the men, Mario GÓmez, 63, who has silicosis, a lung ailment common among miners, hoped that he would be carrying his inhaler. "He'll be much less nervous if he does," she told TIME. "I'll be much less nervous if he does." (See pictures of the miners underground.)

Indeed, claustrophobic panic attacks during the ascent have been the one key concern, and officials are ready to increase the lift speed to 10 ft. (3 m) per second should a miner have one. "Every rescue has risks," said Mining Minister Laurence Golborne before the operation, "but we've got hundreds of different contingencies in place." Many had assumed the miners would be given anxiety-reducing drugs before the lift; but medical advisers insisted the men be in a natural state, "not all drugged up, so they'll be alert to whatever problem they might encounter on the way up," Dr. Franco Utili, an emergency medical specialist on the rescue team, told TIME.

Click image to see photos of the rescue efforts

AP/Hugo Infante, Chilean government
So far, the only nervous moment has been a three-hour delay in the operation's start, when Golborne reported a problem with the capsule door during testing Tuesday night. When the damage (which could have caused the capsule to get caught on the wall of the 28-inch-wide [70 cm wide] shaft) was fixed, the first of a handful of rescue workers was lowered down shortly after 11 p.m. to gauge the miners' condition and assist them with the capsule. Within minutes Avalos, the No. 2 leader of the mining group who had been charged with video-monitoring his comrades' subterranean health for officials above, was on his way. After he arrived at the bottom, another rescue worker was sent down, and another miner was sent up: the electrician-prankster SepÚlveda, 39, who lightened the moment by giving PiÑera and his attending Cabinet ministers joke gifts of rocks from the mine below and then led them in rowdy cheerleader chants. (See a map of where the miners have been.)

Each man, who was allowed to have about three family members greet him as he popped through the hole, was to be examined by doctors at a makeshift medical facility at the rescue site. Then they would be whisked by air force helicopter to a hospital in CopiapÓ for a minimum of two days' observation. The last miner up will be Luis UrzÚa, 52, the shift foreman who was the men's leader and kept them cohesive during their entrapment - a role officials want him to play throughout the rescue phase as well. (Comment on this story.)

But even if they get a physical pass, they'll need months, if not years, of emotional monitoring. Alberto Iturra, the rescue team's chief psychologist, has warned that the miners, who are like nocturnal creatures now being brought back into a life of daylight, could experience posttraumatic problems similar to those of soldiers returning from war, especially "the disappointments and frustrations of no one else understanding what they've been through." Once their international fame has passed, Iturra said recently, their families may have to muster "a lot of patience."

Fortunately, that quality seems to be in large supply among them. Margarita Rojo, 72, the mother of miner Dario Segovia, 48, says she never imagined the rescue would come this soon. She thought it could "take up to the rest of the year, to tell you the truth," Rojo told TIME. Then again, she was a miner herself as a younger woman - an explosives expert to boot. Her son, she says, "is a miner - they're like cats, with nine lives. He's got three or four left at least." For the next two days, that outpouring of life promises to light up the watching world as surely as it ignited the barren Chilean desert.
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