When rescued Chilean miner Mario Sepulveda rose to the surface after being trapped underground for 69 days, he couldn't contain himself. He ran out of the capsule, yelling and cheering and hugging everyone in sight. The world press quickly dubbed the 40-year-old father of two "Super Mario."
Only an hour after Mario was released from the hospital, he spoke to ABC News in his first television interview about that awful moment when the world caved in on "Los Treinta y Tres" – those 33 men.
"I was wearing ear plugs and a hard hat, so I could barely hear," Sepulveda said. "But I FELT something odd and another miner started yelling, 'Mario, it's a cave-in…let's get out of here!'"
Sepulveda started looking desperately for a way out. He climbed a ladder up a ventilation shaft, but the ladder ran out, and rocks started showering down on him.
"I told the men, 'There's no escape. We need to remain in this shelter. God is here with us. Whoever wants to save themselves, take His hand,'" he said.
During those first few days, Mario said, the men were often screaming, fighting and crying: "You have everything going through your mind: you fear, you cry and you suffer. You wonder, 'Is anyone coming to save us - or not?' But doubt always was a passing moment, because we had faith. Everyday at noon, we would pray. Everyday. Down there, we were all…one religion."
Reports have surfaced that the men worried about cannibalism. Sepulveda said he never considered that, he simply hoped to die in his sleep. He even prepared for it: "One night, I gathered all my things, my seat belt, my hard hat, and I thought, 'When I die, I want to die as a miner,' and when they find me, dignified, the world will say, 'A miner died with his head held high.'"
Rescue on the Horizon
One week after being buried alive, the miners started hearing drills cutting through the mountain. Most of the drills failed to reach the shelter. But then, on day 17, "The drill breaks through our ceiling," he recalled. "It was a miracle. We hugged, we cried, we thanked God. We banged on the drill for an hour, hoping someone up there could hear us. We then tied little notes to the drill," Mario said.
When rescuers pulled the drill back up, they found a crumpled piece of paper that read, "We're alive, in the shelter, all 33 of us."
But it was another seven weeks before the miners would be pulled out. During that time, Sepulveda was their cheerleader.
"I would tell them, 'Look compadres, we will be fine, we will be happy, and we'll blow out of here.'"
Cameras sent down by the rescuers revealed Sepulveda's approach to the world: a mix of faith and laughter. Mario had become a clown and a jokester, even caught on tape dancing around with the Chilean flag. To the outside world, he was a light-hearted tour guide into this dark underworld.
Keeping the Faith
In the end, says Sepulveda, what got him through those miserable 69 days and nights was his yearning to be back with his family. He spent much of this past weekend falling in love again with his wife, Katty, dancing with his daughter, Scarlette, and reading the goodbye letter he wrote to his son, Franco, when he thought he was going to die.
"I will miss you, son," he wrote. "But I am tranquil and happy, because as I leave this earth, I know you will be in the good hands of your mother."
The first thing Sepulveda wanted to do when he left the hospital was go to the beach. But no one had any idea that they were about to witness him strip down without warning and frolic naked in the water. With his little boy at his side, he dropped down to his knees and gave thanks.
"I adore you, God," he said. "And I promise I will never leave you, just like I promised you when I was buried alive." Before his interview was over, he insisted GMA deliver a reminder from Super Mario to the world: "Life is short. In one minute you can lose it. In one minute it can all be gone. Don't worry so much about money. Live your life. Live every second of it."