TOPICS > World

Chilean Miners Lifted to Freedom One-by-One

October 13, 2010 at 4:30 PM EDT
Loading the player...
A group of trapped Chilean miners is being lifted to freedom on-by-one in a gripping rescue scene. Jonathan Miller gives a recap of the dramatic rescue from the site at the San Jose mine.

JIM LEHRER: The dramatic rescue of the Chilean miners continues tonight. They have emerged one by one in a small capsule from the depths of their 69 days of entrapment.

We have a recap of the events of last night and today from Jonathan Miller of Independent Television News.


JONATHAN MILLER: The loved ones of the men so long buried beyond reach watched, but almost couldn’t bear to watch, as, for 16 suspense-filled minutes, the narrow capsule finally made its maiden voyage with a passenger on board.

At 10 past midnight, its yellow tip emerged.


JONATHAN MILLER: For the family of Florencio Avalos, the miner, waiting in Camp Hope, agony and ecstasy.


JONATHAN MILLER: That’s it. The Phoenix has landed. What a moment for these families. What a moment for Chile.

Up at plan B, 31-year-old Florencio, married with two children, appears, cool, contained. He’s very fit and, despite his years, experienced. That’s why he was chosen.


JONATHAN MILLER: As he’s embraced, first by his tearful son, his wife, and then by Chile’s President Pinera, Florencio’s own joy of liberation tempered by knowledge that his brother Renan will remain entombed below for at least another day.

His family, nerves shot through, appear more traumatized than Florencio himself. Theirs has been a long, hard journey, too, but, for now, their disbelief at last suspended.

ALBERTO AVALOS, uncle of Florencio Avalos (through translator): I have thought about that moment many times, but I never imagined it would be like this. I thought it would be much calmer. It doesn’t matter anymore what happened down there or the tears we shed. What matters is that he came out.

JONATHAN MILLER: Operation San Lorenzo has the all drama and characters of prime-time reality TV, and the watching world is hooked, but this is really real, and the risks remain very high.

At 20 past 11:00, Manuel Gonzalez, a highly experienced mining engineer, had taken the first plunge.


JONATHAN MILLER: The arrival of his capsule in the cavern half-a-mile below was broadcast live, filmed by the miners.


JONATHAN MILLER: The first outsider to reach them in 10 weeks was greeted like an alien arriving from another planet.






JONATHAN MILLER: The second miner out was Mario Sepulveda. Super Mario, they call him, whose whoops of joy were heard way down the tube as he ascended.

“I’m so happy,” he yelled as he emerged.


JONATHAN MILLER: He grabbed his wife and asked her how the dog was. He was desperate to share his treasures from below with those who had saved his life, this a lump of rock for President Pinera, who accepted it like it was moon rock.


JONATHAN MILLER: Mario is also known here as el presentador, the presenter, as he had narrated the miners’ videos which were broadcast around the world.

He bounds around like a rock star in his eye-protecting Oakleys, hugging, whipping up the Chile chanting…


JONATHAN MILLER: … and gulping down the cold night air like wine.

Super Mario was stretchered off to triage, but they could hardly keep him down. His infectious warmth and vibrant personality has set Chile on fire and injected laughter into this high-stress operation. But he acknowledged he had done battle in the darkness.

MARIO SEPULVEDA, rescued miner (through translator): I was with God and I was with the devil. They fought me, but God won. He took me by my best hand, the hand of God. I held on to him. And I never had — how do I put it? I never thought for one minute that God wouldn’t get me out of there.

JONATHAN MILLER: The presenter of underground TV said he wasn’t interested in celebrity.

MARIO SEPULVEDA (through translator): The professionals that do all this publicity and television, the only personal thing I ask is for you not to treat us as artists or journalists. I want you to continue treating me like Mario Antonio Sepulveda, a worker, a miner.


JONATHAN MILLER: The fourth miner, the Bolivian, Carlos Mamani, surfaces. He had only worked at the mine five days before it collapsed. He had left his homeland because he couldn’t get a job there. Now his president says, if he comes home, he will have a job for life.

Two hours later, and Jimmy Sanchez, at 19, the youngest miner, who has a baby daughter, Barbara, came up the tube. He gets claustrophobic, and he looked a little shaken.


JONATHAN MILLER: Dawn crept slowly over Mina San Jose. And, as day broke, the candles flickered on the hill of the 33.

It’s now eight hours since the capsule first entered the chamber, and seven since Florencio Avalos first emerged at the surface. Phoenix has been rising roughly every hour since.


JONATHAN MILLER: At 8:04 a.m., number nine, the oldest of the miners, 63-year-old Mario Gomez, made his 2,050-foot ascent. He had worn an oxygen mask, as he has a lung disease.

The man who had provided spiritual guidance to the miners and set up a subterranean chapel knelt down and thanked God for his deliverance. His wife, Liliana, took him in her arms. He’s been down mines since he was 12. She says she will leave him if he ever goes down again.

They have both been outspoken critics of safety standards in Chilean mines. In triage, he’s visited by Chile’s President Sebastian Pinera and Bolivia’s President Evo Morales. The Chilean leader has already ordered an overhaul of mine safety regulations.


JONATHAN MILLER: We were watching Mario’s extractions with other members of his family in Camp Hope. A wave of relief and intense emotion swept through the group. It radiated out among those filming and watching.

There was something about this moment that somehow captured the enormity of what has happened here. With every passing hour, another miner surfaces. It’s continued through the morning and early afternoon, without hitch and faster than expected.

Up at plan B, the big wheel keeps on turning, and the Phoenix capsule now looks scratched and battered. The men whom it delivers have set a record for surviving underground, confined, deprived of sunlight.


JONATHAN MILLER: For the first 17 dark days, the world had thought them dead. But, having confronted death, they now start life again. This incredible rescue has been the work of man, but, here in Chile, it’s seen as nothing short of a miracle from God.