For one miner, Florencio Ávalos, freedom was just minutes away.
Ávalos was ready. He had slipped into the tailored green jumpsuit with his name stitched across the chest. A pair of Oakley sunglasses protected his eyes. On his right wrist a monitor measured his pulse and sent wireless updates to the rescue team on the surface. His left index finger was inserted into a device that measured oxygen levels in his blood. Tightly wrapped around his chest, a sophisticated electronic monitor transmitted another half dozen vital signs to the technicians and doctors above ground.
The other miners gathered around to watch, photograph and make home videos of the scene. Despite their nervousness, a strange calm filled the chamber. Like professional athletes in a locker room before a big game, the men joked and paced but their confidence was evident. The men momentarily forgot the terror of the collapse and the lingering sensation that death had been stalking them. For now, the scene was more like a party as cumbia music blared from farther down the mine. White balloons bounced around the floor as the men ambled nervously – naked except for pairs of clean white pants.
The prospect of escape filled them with a dose of adrenalin. The men now felt as if they were actually going to win their ten-week battle with the mountain. Along the length of the dark tunnels, the miners made last-minute explorations, the bright beams from their flashlights dancing in the distance. The clanking of carabiners was a reminder that rescue workers from Codelco, GOPE and the Chilean Navy had arrived.
González placed a white plastic credential – like those used backstage at rock concerts – over the neck of Ávalos. The rescue was filled with formality, orders and procedures. Every detail has been rehearsed for weeks. Yet the mountain could still throw a monkey wrench into protocol. Even the deepest calm at 700 metres was a superficial escape from the claustrophobic reality.
At 11:53 PM Ávalos stepped into the capsule, and the rescue workers latched the door shut. The miners all listened impatiently to the chatter between Otto, the Austrian winch operator, the communications centre, and Pedro Cortés, below. Meanwhile Ávalos nervously anticipated the imminent family reunion: the two sons who had not seen their father for two months; the wife who had been writing letters and watching videos but had not touched or looked into the eyes of her husband. Ávalos had left for work on a cold winter morning; now it was spring.
As the capsule slid upward, Ávalos’s compañeros screamed, cheered and whistled. Then, instantly, he was alone. For fifteen minutes, Ávalos peered through a metal mesh that sliced the world into diamond-shaped viewing holes. A light inside the capsule illuminated the smooth, wet rock walls. The spring-loaded metal wheels clanked as they rolled along the rocky path. The capsule dipped and bobbed as it followed the uneven tunnel and slowly brought Ávalos towards freedom.
When he was just 20 metres from the surface, Ávalos could see the first signs of light and hear the first sounds of life. Rescue workers were now screaming down, asking if he was OK. Then suddenly he was in the light: a hero to the waiting world, a father reunited with his crying sons and a huge boost in the polls to President Piñera, who waited in the front row.
As Florencio was pulled from the capsule, his nine-year-old son, Byron, broke down in tears. Rescue workers jumped and celebrated. The cameras flashed on a wrenching scene – for a moment the nine-year-old boy was alone, awash in emotions. First Lady Cecilia Morel, health minister Mañalich and Rene Aguilar, the second in command of the rescue operation, swept in to calm the child. Then true comfort arrived – a hug from his father.
Ministers, hard-hat rescue workers, doctors and journalists all openly wept at the beauty of the scene. Then men had defined themselves from that first note as Los 33 and had been adopted by the world as a beloved collective, now famed for their ability to work as a team. In a world so often defined by bloody acts and individual egos, Los 33 remained united while entombed, a brotherhood of working-class heroes. Teamwork had kept them alive, and now they would all be rescued together.
Florencio hugged first his family, then President Piñera, then the rescue workers. Next he was placed on a stretcher and wheeled into the field hospital. The entire hospital staff erupted in applause. They assumed Ávalos was healthy – he had been chosen to journey first based on his mental and physical strength – but nonetheless he was given glucose and a nurse took his blood pressure. As he lay in the bed, Florencio thought about his younger brother Renán, still trapped below.
Tag Archives: Los 33
For one miner, Florencio Ávalos, freedom was just minutes away.
Before Piñera arrived, the last section of drill was removed. Eduardo Hurtado looked at the muddy piping and saw an orange splotch on the shaft, above the drill bit. A message? Wiping away the mud, Hurtado grabbed a gallon jug of bottled water and poured it over the drill, dousing Golborne as well. ‘Sorry, Minister,’ said Hurtado, as he cleaned the shaft to reveal a crude orange stain. ‘That mark is not ours,’ said Hurtado. ‘Minister, this is a sign of life.’
At 2 PM, Golborne inspected the tube. Hearing a distant clanging had encouraged the minister, but here was hand-painted evidence of survivors. Seconds later, as the drill bit emerged completely, the men saw a yellow plastic bag tied to the tip of the drill. It was wound in cables and the rubber elastic from Sepúlveda’s underwear. The workers unravelled the cables and peeled away layers of muddy plastic from the sodden package. Golborne opened the small shredded pieces of paper as if they were delicate gifts. He began to read aloud from pages torn out of a notebook. A message from the deep. ‘ “The drill broke through at [level] forty-four … in the corner of the ceiling, on the right side … some water came down. We are in the shelter. … may God bring you light, greetings, Mario Gómez.”’
On the other side was more writing. Golborne again read aloud to the hushed crowd. ‘ “Dear Lily, patience, I want to get out of here soon …”’ He continued reading in silence, and then announced, ‘This is personal.’ Golborne carefully gathered the scraps of the letter and, together with Sougarret, prepared to board a pickup and drive down the hill. Protocol weighed heavily on both men; they were determined to brief the families before the news leaked.
Francisco Poyanco, a technician on the drill rig, was stacking the metal piping coming up from the hole. The very last tube, in which Golborne had found the note, was dripping with mud and earth from below. Poyanco began to gather the nylon bags and cables that had held Gómez’s note. Half buried in the mess, a lump of tape stood out. Poyanco picked it up and discovered another small tightly wrapped package – another note from the buried men. Poyanco was thrilled, thinking it was a souvenir he could take home. As he unfolded the note, however, Poyanco felt chills – ‘Estamos Bien En El Refugio los 33.’ In clear red letters, evenly spaced and calmly written, was the proof of salvation: all the men were alive.
Poyanco ran towards Golborne, carrying the scrap of paper he had found in the mud. He began yelling that all of the men were alive. Hurtado heard the cries. Golborne paused, then seeing that Poyanco had a note, told him to read it aloud. The thirty-year-old assistant unfolded the note and read aloud the seven words: ‘Estamos Bien En El Refugio los 33.’ (‘We are all right in the shelter, the 33 of us.’) The drill site erupted. Like spectators at a soccer match after a spectacular goal, helmeted engineers thrust their arms skyward, jumping up and down and hugging one another.