“Chile! Chile! Chile!” The cry went up just after midnight in Camp Esperanza (Camp Hope) which had sprung up in the otherwise deserted Atacama Desert.
Moments earlier Florencio Avalos had climbed from the rescue capsule that had freed him “from hell”.
That is how some of the 33 miners described the place 700 m underground in a copper mine where they had been trapped while one of the most complex and tense rescue operations in the world was planned and carried out.
And after more than two months in the bowels of the earth the first of the 33 miners was able once again to take a deep breath of desert air – and he looked remarkably relaxed.
The 31-year-old driver, who was also The 33’s videographer in the collapsed copper mine, was chosen to be brought up first because he was one of the fittest and psychologically strongest of the miners.
Had the Phoenix become stuck or the rescue shaft collapsed he would have had to exit the capsule through an escape hatch in the floor and descend to his point of departure at the end of a cable.
Luis Urzua (54), the shift leader and topographer who led the others to safety immediately after the mine collapsed, was set to come out last, just as a ship’s captain is traditionally last to leave a ship in distress.
Mario Sepulveda was the second to be hoisted to freedom. And the prankster who’d played master of ceremonies in the videos relayed from underground even brought presents for Camp Esperanza: a bag of rocks from the mine.
Soon after being freed Sepulveda said in a TV interview, “please don’t treat us like entertainment artists. I want to carry on being what I am: a worker; a mineworker.”
Before the mining accident they were for the most part private, humble men who didn’t earn much. Now they’re national heroes.
Their tales of doubt, despair and determination are the sort publishers and moviemakers vie for.
The drama played out on the Atacama plains sometimes resembled a TV soapie. Some of the intrigue began while the men were still at the bottom of the mine.
Yonni Barrios (33) doubled as The 33’s medic but back on top he might need some assistance. His wife discovered he had a mistress when she found another woman waiting for him at Camp Esperanza.
“The stage they’ll find themselves on after their liberation will be very difficult for them. They’ll be subjected to many demands,” the mineworkers’ chief doctor, Jorge Diaz, predicted.
Read about the brave rescue operation and all the emotion in YOU, 21 October 2010.