Rescuers freed nine miners from a caved-in copper mine in southern Peru on Wednesday, ending a seven-day ordeal during which the men had survived deep underground.
The miners emerged from the Cabeza de Negro mine one-by-one starting at around 7am, wrapped in blankets and wearing dark glasses to protect their eyes against the bright light of day.
One of the miners had difficulty walking, and was wearing an oxygen mask.
“This moment, it’s like being reborn,” said Edwin Bellido after a tearful reunion with his wife and two young daughters.
“We went through some critical moments in there. We had to sleep on plastic sheets,” he said.
Miners raised a red-and-white Peruvian flag atop a pole to celebrate the rescue and Peruvian President Ollanta Humala, who arrived Tuesday, joined relatives in welcoming the men back to the surface amid an outpouring of emotion and patriotism.
“The best medicine for these fellow countrymen is to meet with their family. Mission accomplished,” said Humala, who spoke briefly with each of the miners.
Trapped since April 5, the miners, aged 22 to 59 and including a father and son, had escaped injury in the cave-in and were huddled together in the same place.
Rescuers had to proceed cautiously though because of the danger of further cave-ins as they dug through rock and soil to reach the miners trapped in a horizontal gallery 250m underground.
Rescuers were able to get close enough to supply them with oxygen, water and soup through a metal tube.
However, a cave-in delayed the rescue until Wednesday as miners brought in to help with the rescue shored up tunnel walls with wooden beams.
Bellido recalled the ordeal as both harrowing and uncomfortable.
“We spent some critical moments inside,” he said.
“We joked and did physical exercise to pass the time and not get anxious. We used our hardhats to eat the liquid food sent to us through a hose,” he said.
However, as the ordeal wore on, four of the miners began complaining of stomach problems.
Before exiting the mine, doctor’s examined the vital signs of each of the miners. Once outside they were led to a tent for a fuller examination.
Doctors were upbeat about their condition.
“We have given them checkups and bathed them. We are pleased that they did not come in in serious condition, which is what we were afraid of,” said physician Alberto Ramirez, the local hospital’s emergency care chief. The miners were also given blood tests, chest X-rays and screened for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Cabeza de Negro is an unlicensed mine that was abandoned more than two decades ago by its owners, but continues to be exploited.
With international market prices for metals high, informal “wildcat” mining has been on the rise in recent years in Peru, one of the largest producers of silver, copper and gold.
About 30,000 unlicensed miners are believed to work in the region around Ica, on a desert coast 300km south of Lima.
“These have been incredibly painful days. I don’t want to hear anything about mining ever again,” said Nancy Fernandez, the wife of Jacinto Pariona, one of the first men to make it out.
“My husband was working here for two months. In fact, he is not even a miner, he just came because my son who is a miner convinced him to come and do it — but now, anything else but mining,” Fernandez said.