Months-long Chilean mine drama comes to a charmed end

COPIAPO, Chile — The dramatic and emotional rescue of miners trapped almost a half-mile below ground ended Wednesday night with Luis Urzua, 54, ascending to the surface in the now-battered Fenix capsule that had pulled 32 of his colleagues to freedom before him.

Urzua, a foreman in the mine, had reportedly assumed the mantle of leadership from the beginning of what became a 69-day ordeal when the desert mine collapsed, sealing the men in a humid underground chamber. He was the last miner to leave the chamber, followed in surprisingly short order by five rescue workers who descended Tuesday to assist in the operation.

The rescue work had adopted a mesmerizing, rhythmic routine, the thin capsule shimmying down and up the narrow shaft that had been drilled to reach the chamber. Each appearance at the surface delivered a newly rescued miner into the arms of overjoyed family members, reunions that were still moving with every repetition.

The miners are all reported to be in good physical condition, though one was being treated for pneumonia.

"We have lived a magical night, a night we will remember throughout our lives, a night in which life defeated death," declared Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, who welcomed the miners as they emerged from the rescue pod one at a time.

The pace quickened throughout the day, each miner's appearance unleashing a new wave of raw emotion. But what only hours earlier seemed magical, also became routine.

One after another, average men united in an incredible tale of survival and distinguished by each one's unique skills and story, returned.

The 55-year-old miner who led a prayer group followed the 26-year-old former security guard who helped manage packages sent down to the miners. The one who while trapped asked his wife of 25 years to renew their wedding vows was followed by the one who went underground to pay for his son's medical school. The miner colleagues referred to as "Dr. House" after the TV character preceded the one who monitored gas levels in the pit and sent readings to the surface.

Officials said initial indications were that the men were in remarkably good health.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday afternoon, Health Minister Jaime Manalich said that only one of the 17 miners who had reached the Copiapo Regional Hospital by that point showed any symptoms of a serious illness.

That miner, who was not identified, was suffering from pneumonia, a condition that had been diagnosed remotely while he was still underground. Doctors were prepared, and had already begun to treat him, Manalich said.

Otherwise, the miners' health so far was "more than satisfactory," Manalich said, adding that the first ones to be rescued would probably be discharged from the hospital starting Thursday afternoon.

Ophthalmologist Luis Salinas said that initial examinations showed no apparent eye damage from weeks of no sunlight, contrary to the fears of medical experts.

Manalich said that as the rescue operations continued, the miners in the clinic were "extremely worried about the rescue" of those still waiting."Because of the excitement, all are anxious, they haven't slept and say they won't be calm until all of the rest have been rescued," Manalich said.The entire country, and millions of people watching worldwide on television, shared the excitement.

Pinera took congratulatory calls from other heads of state. President Barack Obama said the rescue "is a tribute not only to the determination of the rescue workers and the Chilean government, but also the unity and resolve of the Chilean people, who have inspired the world."

Obama also singled out the Americans who manufactured and operated the drill that reached the miners, and the NASA team that helped design the rescue capsule.

Alicia Campos, whose 27-year old son Daniel Herrera Campos was pulled up 16th early Wednesday afternoon, said the first order of business after seeing her son was to take him home to southern Chile and host a Mass of thanksgiving.

Before leaving to greet her son, Campos likened the rescue to a "Cesarean section done on Mother Earth."

"Daniel will truly be born again. But before I hug him and tell him how much I love him, I will thank God for allowing it to happen," Campos said.

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