Chilean rescuer reaches trapped miners

WATCH LIVE: A rescue worker was lowered down a shaft to where 33 Chilean miners are trapped Tuesday night and crews prepared to start raising the men to the surface, one at a time.


A rescue worker was lowered down a shaft to where 33 Chilean miners are trapped Tuesday night and crews prepared to start raising the men to the surface, one at a time.

The crowd cheered as the worker began his descent in a metal rescue capsule at 10:20 p.m. ET.

"Good luck, imagine you're at the beach," an official said to the rescuer in Spanish as he secured him into the capsule.

Rescuer Manuel Gonzalez Pavez, second from left, is greeted by the trapped miners near Copiapo, Chile, on Tuesday. ((Associated Press))

A video feed in the underground chamber showed the miners cheering and shaking hands with the rescuer as he emerged from the capsule.

The worker will help prepare the trapped men for their trip to the surface more than 600 metres above. Those preparations were expected to take up to one hour before the first miner is raised up after more than two months underground.

"Before today ends, at least one of the miners will be on the surface," Mining Minister Laurence Golborne told a news conference during the evening.

Cheering Chileans gather around a large video screen in a public square in Copiapo on Tuesday as they watch the launch of a massive rescue effort to free 33 men trapped in a nearby mine since Aug. 5. ((Mariana Baz/Reuters))

The man tentatively chosen to be first out of the mine is Florencio Avalos, 31, who is married with two children.

Shortly before the rescue was due to start, President Sebastian Pinera teased reporters at a news conference that he was pretty sure the first one out would have the last name of Avalos. There are three men with that name trapped below.

But Maria Silva said the president himself had told her it would be her son, Francisco Avalos.

Live special

Watch live coverage of the Chile mine rescue, starting at 1 a.m. ET Wednesday on CBC News Network.

Avalos, whom friends describe as shy, had been the second-in-command of the group before the collapse. He often acted as a cameraman after cameras were sent down, taking pictures of the other miners — a role that frustrated his relatives, who saw little of him in the videos.

"I am not surprised" that he was chosen, his mother said after word reached the family. "I am so proud of him."

The miners will take turns being strapped into a 190-by-54-centimetre metal capsule that will carry them to the surface through a rescue shaft, which has taken weeks to drill.

Luis Acuna, brother of trapped miner Claudio Acuna, stands next to Chilean flags that line the mine near the city of Copiapo on Tuesday. ((Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press))

The capsule, dubbed Phoenix 1, has passed unmanned tests, but this type of rescue has never been attempted before, the rescue team said. 

Two additional capsules have been built to serve as backup if necessary.

Psychologists, Chile's health minister and doctors at the site have said it will be a perilous journey for the miners.

Doctors said the miners could suffer nausea and heart palpitations and they are concerned about the risk of blood clotting and heart attacks. Aspirin has been sent down to the men to thin their blood.

The capsule is expected to spin on its way to the surface, and each trip could take between 15 minutes and an hour.

Each time a miner reaches the surface and is pulled from the capsule, an alarm will sound, Chilean Health Minister Jaime Manalich said. The sirens will mobilize emergency teams but will not indicate anything extraordinary or bad is happening.

Camp Hope

The area around the San Jose mine may have been dubbed Camp Hope, but it has also become a spawning ground of intrigue, envy and rivalries that have divided the miners' relatives.

Relatives privately shared stories of the divisiveness with an Associated Press reporter who spent the past month at the camp, frequently bedding down in a tent beside theirs, sharing coffee and gossip.

The feuds stem from matters such as who got to take part in weekend video conferences with the miners, who received letters and why — or even who should speak to the media and how much they should be revealing about a family's life.

Some relatives complained about distant kin giving interviews about trapped miners they barely know. Others, the families said, lined up for donated gifts, including sexy lingerie, bottles of wine and electronic toys and Halloween costumes for children.

"Here, the tension is higher than down below," said Veronica Ticona, sister of 29-year-old Ariel Ticona, one of the trapped miners. "Down there, they are calm."

"We could say that the mine is birthing and is going to bring those 'children' to light," he said. "That is going to be a tremendous joy."

The winch that will hoist the capsule is expected to move at a speed of 7/10ths of a metre per second. The capsule can be pulled as fast as three metres per second if needed.

When asked what the biggest fear is, rescue co-ordinator Andre Sougarett said: "A rock could fall."

Still, the rescuers remain confident the miners' ordeal will end shortly.

"There is no need to try to start guessing what could go wrong," Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said. "We have done that job. We have hundreds of different contingencies."

Mining company Geotec drilled the rescue shafts and will operate the capsule. Eugenio Eguiguren, the company's executive vice-president, told CBC News the team running the rescue operation is optimistic.

"There is no experience in the world like this before," Eguiguren said. "We are very confident."

Eguiguren said the miners are ready.

"They are very anxious to go to the surface," he said. "They are very well prepared to go up in the capsules."

Psychologists said they could sense anxiety in the men's voices, although they seemed calm.

Above ground, the mine site has been abuzz with excitement as families gathered in a special waiting area to see their loved ones.

Alberto Iturra, chief of the team of psychologists advising the trapped men, decided each miner will meet at the surface with one to three designated people.

Harper praises miners

As crews tested the capsule, Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a statement praising the trapped miners for their courage and offering his hopes for a successful rescue.

"We hope and pray that the fears we have for so long entertained, for so many, will be quickly turned to joyful thanksgiving when those who have been trapped are reunited with their loved ones," he said.

"My thoughts and prayers, along with those of the Canadian people, are with the trapped Chilean miners and the rescue team as they prepare for the final rescue," Harper said. "We are so proud of the Canadians involved in the rescue effort alongside our Chilean friends."

How extraction will work

On Monday, the Phoenix I capsule the biggest of three built by Chilean navy engineers, named for the mythic bird that rose from ashes — made its first test runs after the top 55 metres of the shaft were lined with steel pipe.

The rescue team has made a secret document that lists the order in which the men will be pulled out of the mine. ((Associated Press))

Then the empty capsule was winched down 610 metres, just 12 metres short of the tunnel that has been the miners' refuge since the mine collapse.

"We didn't send it [all the way] down because we could risk that someone will jump in," Golborne told reporters with a grin.

Engineers had planned to extend the piping nearly twice as far, but they decided to stop after the sleeve became jammed during a probe. The hole is angled 11 degrees off vertical at its top before plumbing down, like a waterfall.

Iturra said he recommended the first man be removed at dawn because the miners are to be taken by Chilean air force helicopters to the nearby Copiapo, and fog tends to enshroud the mine at night.

It is a roughly 10-minute flight, said Lt.-Col. Aldo Carbone, the choppers' squadron commander. He said the pilots have night-vision goggles but will not fly unless it is clear.


Send us your questions and suggestions as we report on the event.

Ambulances will be on standby if the men need to be transported by vehicle. The drive would take about an hour.

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 descend in the capsule to evaluate the men and oversee the journey upward.

First out will be the four miners who are the most fit in mind and body, Manalich said. Should glitches occur, these men will be best prepared to ride them out and tell their comrades what to expect.

Next will be 10 who are weakest or ill. One miner suffers from hypertension. Another is a diabetic, and others have dental and respiratory infections or skin lesions from the mine's oppressive humidity.

The last out is expected to be Luiz Urzua, who was shift chief when the men became entombed, several family members of miners said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they did not want to upset government officials.

The local and international media are expected to be blocked by a screen from viewing the miners when they reach the surface. A media platform has been set up more than 90 metres away from the hole.

After being extracted, the miners will be ushered through inflatable tunnels, like the ones used in sports stadiums, to ambulances that will take them to a triage station.

Once cleared by doctors there, they are to be taken to another area where they'll be reunited with their chosen family members. Next stop: a heliport and the flight to a hospital in Copiapo.

At the hospital, all the miners will be kept for 48 hours of observation that will begin when the last one exits the escape shaft.

With files from The Associated Press