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Chileans rejoice as first miners are freed

SAN JOSE MINE, Chile — The first of 33 men was rescued Tuesday night after 69 days trapped in a collapsed mine, pulled to fresh air and freedom at last in a missile-like escape capsule to the cheers of his family and countrymen.

Florencio Avalos, wearing a helmet and sunglasses to protect him from the glare of rescue lights, smiled broadly as he emerged and hugged his sobbing 7-year-old son, Bairo, and wife. He also embraced Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and rescuers.

Also on hand was Avalos' other son and father.

After the capsule was pulled out of a manhole-size opening, Avalos emerged as bystanders cheered, clapped and broke into a chant of "Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le!" —the country's name.

Avalos gave a thumbs-up as he was led to an ambulance and medical tests after his more than two months deep below the Chilean desert — the longest anyone has ever been trapped underground and survived.

The second miner rescued, Mario Sepulveda Espina, climbed out of the rescue capsule and jubilantly hugged his wife, Pinera and rescuers, and then handed them pieces of rock from his underground home.

Avalos, the 31-year-old second-in-command of the miners, was chosen to be first because he was in the best condition. He has been so shy that he volunteered to handle the camera rescuers sent down so he wouldn't have to appear on the videos that the miners sent up.

Pinera described how lovely it was to see Avalos' sons greet their father, especially young Bairo.

"I told Florencio, that few times have I ever seen a son show so much love for his father," the president said.

"This won't be over until all 33 are out," Pinera added. "Hopefully the spirit of these miners will remain forever with us.... This country is capable of great things."

Minutes earlier, mine rescue expert Manuel Gonzalez of the state copper company Codelco grinned and made the sign of the cross as he was lowered into the shaft to the trapped men — apparently without incident. He was followed by Roberto Ros, a paramedic with the Chilean navy's special forces. Together they will prepare the miners for their rescue — expected to take as long as 36 hours for all to surface.

"We made a promise to never surrender, and we kept it," Pinera said as he waited to greet the miners, whose endurance and unity captivated the world as Chile meticulously prepared their rescue.

Last miner out

The last miner out has been decided: Shift foreman Luis Urzua, whose leadership was credited for helping the men endure 17 days with no outside contact after the collapse. The men made 48 hours' worth of rations last before rescuers reached them with a narrow borehole to send down more food.

Janette Marin, sister-in-law of miner Dario Segovia, said the order of rescue didn't matter.

"This won't be a success unless they all get out," she said, echoing the solidarity that the miners and people across Chile have expressed.

The paramedics can change the order of rescue based on a brief medical check once they're in the mine. First out will be those best able to handle any difficulties and tell their comrades what to expect. Then, the weakest and the ill — in this case, about 10 suffer from hypertension, diabetes, dental and respiratory infections and skin lesions from the mine's oppressive humidity. The last should be people who are both physically fit and strong of character.

Chile has taken extensive precautions to ensure the miners' privacy, using a screen to block the top of the shaft from the 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 to a triage station for a medical check. They will gather with a few relatives in an area also closed to the media, before being taken by helicopter to a hospital.

Each ride up the shaft is expected to take about 20 minutes, and authorities expect they can haul up one miner per hour. When the last man surfaces, it promises to end a national crisis that began when 700,000 tons of rock collapsed Aug. 5, sealing the miners into the lower reaches of the mine.

The only media allowed to record them coming out of the shaft was a government photographer and Chile's state TV channel, whose live broadcast was delayed by 30 seconds or more to prevent the release of anything unexpected. Photographers and camera operators are on a platform more than 300 feet away.

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 partly up the shaft.

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 3 meters per second, Health Minister Jaime Manalich said.

The rescue is risky simply because no one else has ever tried to extract miners from such depths, said Davitt McAteer, who directed the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration in the Clinton administration.

"You can be good and you can be lucky. And they've been good and lucky," McAteer told the AP. "Knock on wood that this luck holds out for the next 33 hours."

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