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Chile choreographs dramatic finish to rescue saga

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SAN JOSE MINE, Chile >> Fresh air and freedom were just hours away Tuesday for the first of 33 miners trapped a half-mile underground for 69 days, men whose endurance and unity captivated the world as the Chilean government meticulously prepared their rescue. No one in the history of mining has been trapped so long and survived.

The first miner was expected to be lifted to the surface late Tuesday in a custom-made capsule. President Sebastian Pinera was at the mine, waiting to greet him.

“We made a promise to never surrender, and we kept it,” Pinera said at about 5:45 p.m. local time (10:45 a.m. Hawaii time), shortly before two rescue workers were expected to go down to prepare the miners for their trip. The president said the first miner will be brought up about two hours later.

Chile has taken extensive precautions to ensure the miners’ health and privacy, sending down Navy special forces paramedics to prepare them for the trip and 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 is expected to take about 20 minutes, and authorities expect they will be able to haul up roughly one miner an hour. The rescue of the last miner will end a national crisis that began when a cave-in sealed off the gold and copper mine Aug. 5.

The only media allowed to record them coming out of the shaft will be a government photographer and Chile’s state television channel. Their images will be delayed about 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 10 feet per second, Health Minister Jaime Manalich said.

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, they were kept busy Tuesday making final preparations “to keep their spirits up,” Manalich said. He added that they were doing well: “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 early Monday, and the 13-foot tall capsule descended flawlessly in test runs. The white, blue and red capsule — the biggest of three built by Chilean navy engineers — was named Phoenix I for the mythical bird that rises from ashes.

The miners will be closely monitored from the moment they’re strapped into the claustrophobic steel tube to be hauled up the smooth-walled tunnel. For the last six hours before surfacing, they’ll drink 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 sooner than planned after the sleeve 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.

As each miner is hauled up, a small video camera in the escape capsule will be trained on his face so rescuers can watch 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 if they emerge at night. 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 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 Pacific Ocean fog that rolls in at night, a notoriously thick, humid blanket Chileans call “the camanchaca.” Night traffic on the mine road was banned as a precaution to keep headlights from interfering with the night-vision goggles, and to keep the road clear for ambulances should they be necessary.

Families were urged to wait and prepare to greet the miners at home after a 48-hour hospital stay.

“In Chile, we have huge families,” Manalich said, joking that if they weren’t stopped, entire football teams of people would crowd into the hospital’s wards. He also said that no cameras or interviews will be allowed until the miners are released, unless the miners expressly desire it.

Officials have drawn up a secret list of which miners should come out first, but the order could change after paramedics and a mining expert first descend in the capsule to evaluate the men. First out will be the four miners best able to handle any difficulties and tell their comrades what to expect. Then, the 10 who are weakest or suffer from hypertension, diabetes, dental and respiratory infections and skin lesions from the mine’s oppressive humidity.

The first miner to be rescued will be Florencio Avalos, according to his mother, Maria Silva, and uncle Alberto Avalos, who said Pinera told them that.

The last miner out, according the list, will be shift foreman Luiz Urzua, whose leadership was credited for the miners’ survival during the 17 days when they were utterly closed off from the outside world. The men stretched an emergency food supply meant to last just 48 hours by taking tiny sips of milk and bites of tuna fish every other day.

Several of Urzua’s relatives told the AP that he was last on the list, speaking on condition of anonymity to avoid upsetting government officials.

“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.

The government 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.

“We learned something in medicine, that our job is to provide benefit and not harm,” Manalich said. “We have to protect them until the last minute, until they can return to normal lives with their families.”

Psychiatrists and other experts in surviving extreme situations predict their lives will be anything but normal, and that both the miners and their families have been forever changed by this experience.

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.

By the time of the rescue, nerves were beyond frayed outside the mine in “Camp Hope,” where miners’ families and reporters from all over the world slept side by side in tents and campers, enduring the baking days and frigid nights of the desolate Atacama desert.

Many relatives privately described their feuds and jealousies with an AP reporter who spent the past month at the camp.

“Here the tension is higher than down below. Down there they are calm,” said Veronica Ticona, sister of 29-year-old Ariel Ticona, a trapped rubble-removal machine operator.

Alberto Iturra, chief of the psychology team, told the families to go home, get some rest, and prepare to reunite in several days.

“I explained to the families that the only way one can receive someone is to first be home to open the door,” Iturra said.


Associated Press Writers Frank Bajak and Vivian Sequera contributed to this report.

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