SAN JOSE MINE, Chile (AP) — The missile-like capsule that will carry 33 miners to fresh air and freedom was lowered into a nearly half-mile-long rescue tunnel Tuesday night. Steam rushed from the hole into the frigid desert air — a sign of the humid, sauna-like conditions the men have endured for 69 days.
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera patted the side of the custom-built capsule proudly as the last act of the mine collapse ordeal approached. No one in history has been trapped underground so long and survived.
“We made a promise to never surrender, and we kept it,” Pinera said earlier as he waited to greet the miners, whose endurance and unity captivated the world as Chile meticulously prepared their rescue.
Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said he hoped that the first of the 33 miners would still emerge before midnight — several hours later than what Pinera had previously announced. Goldborne said that’s because the capsule would be lowered “very slowly” for methodical testing with a rescue worker inside once all the cables are attached and tested.
A mine rescue expert will be lowered in the capsule and raised again to test it, and then that rescuer and a Navy special forces paramedic will be lowered to the men to prepare them for the trip. Only then can the first miner be pulled to safety. It is expected to take as many as 36 hours for the last miner to be rescued.
Families and reporters huddled around televisions and bonfires as a preliminary list of the order of rescue was announced. Florencio Avalos, the 31-year-old second-in-command of the miners, was to be the first miner out.
Avalos has been so shy that he volunteered to handle the camera rescuers sent down so he wouldn’t have to appear on the videos that the miners sent up in recent weeks.
The last miner out is also decided: Shift foreman Luis Urzua, whose leadership was credited for helping the men endure 17 days with no contact from the outside world after the collapse. The men made 48 hours worth of rations last that entire time before rescue crews could drill holes to them and send down more food.
Janette Marin, sister-in-law of miner Dario Segovia, said the order of rescue doesn’t matter. “What matters is that he is getting out, that they are all getting out.
“This won’t be a success unless they all get out,” she added, echoing a feeling of solidarity that the miners and people across Chile have expressed.
The paramedics are empowered to change the order of rescue based on a brief medical check once they’re down below with the miners. 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 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 yards (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 the shaft is expected to take about 20 minutes, and authorities expect they will be able to haul up roughly one miner per hour. When the last man surfaces, it promises to end a national crisis that began when 700,000 tons of rock collapsed on Aug. 5, sealing the miners into the lower reaches of the gold and copper mine.
The only media allowed to record them coming out of the shaft will be a government photographer and Chile’s state television channel, whose live broadcast will be delayed by 30 seconds or more to prevent the release of anything unexpected.
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 partway up the shaft. But test rides suggest the ride up will be smooth.
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 attempt is risky simply because no one else has ever tried to extract miners from such depths, Davitt McAteer, who directed the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration. A miner could get claustrophobic and do something that damages the capsule. Or a rock could fall and 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.”
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 (622-meter) escape shaft early Monday, and the 13-foot (four-meter) tall capsule descended flawlessly in test runs. The capsule — the biggest of three built by Chilean navy engineers — was named Phoenix I for the mythical bird that rises from ashes and 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 into the claustrophobic steel tube to be hauled up the smooth-walled tunnel. They were given a special high-calorie liquid diet prepared and donated by NASA, designed to keep them from vomiting as the rescue capsule rotates 10 to 12 times through curves in the 28-inch-diameter escape hole.
Engineers inserted steel piping at the top of the shaft. They stopped short of initial plans for the sleeve after it became jammed during a probe of the curved top of the hole, which is angled 11 degrees off vertical at its top before plunging like a waterfall. Drillers had to curve the shaft so that it would pass through “virgin” rock, narrowly avoiding collapsed areas and underground open spaces in the overexploited mine, which had operated since 1885.
A small video camera is in the escape capsule, trained on each miner’s face for panic attacks. The miners will wear oxygen masks and have two-way voice communication.
Their pulse, skin temperature and respiration rate will be constantly measured through a biomonitor around their abdomens. To prevent blood clotting from the quick ascent, they took aspirin and will wear compression socks.
The miners will also wear sweaters because they’ll experience a shift in climate from about 90 degrees Fahrenheit underground to temperatures hovering near freezing after night falls. Those coming out during daylight hours will wear sunglasses.
Seconds before each miner surfaces, an ambulance-like siren will sound and a light will flash for a full minute. Officials are calling this the Genesis alarm, meant simply to alert doctors that a miner is arriving.
Many steps have been taken to protect the emerging miners from the media. Photographers and camera operators will be able to see light but little more from a platform set up more than 300 feet (90 meters) away.
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.
Chilean air force Lt. Col. Aldo Carbone, the choppers’ squadron commander, said the pilots have night-vision goggles but will not fly unless it is clear of the notoriously thick Pacific Ocean fog that rolls in at night.
Families were urged to wait and prepare to greet the miners at home after a 48-hour hospital stay. Manalich also said that no cameras or interviews will be allowed until the miners are released, unless the miners expressly desire it.
The miners’ neighbors looked forward to barbecues and parties to replace the vigils that they’ve held since their friends were trapped.
Several of Urzua’s neighbors told the AP that 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 his neighbor Angelica Vicencio, who has led a nightly vigil outside the Urzua home in Copiapo.
U.S. President Barack Obama issued a statement praising the efforts of rescuers, including 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.
Chile has promised that its care of the miners won’t end for six months at least — not until they can be sure that each miner has readjusted.
Psychiatrists and other experts in surviving extreme situations predict their lives will be anything but normal.
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.
Alberto Iturra, chief of the psychology team, encouraged them to wait at home: “I explained to the families that the only way one can receive someone is to first be home to open the door.”
Associated Press Writers Frank Bajak and Vivian Sequera contributed to this report.