Drill reaches 33 Chilean miners; rescue near
Chile's mining minister said late Saturday that the 33 miners trapped for more than two months will probably be pulled out starting Wednesday.
SAN JOSE MINE, Chile — Chile's mining minister said late Saturday that the 33 miners trapped for more than two months will probably be pulled out starting Wednesday.
That's because the rescue team has decided to reinforce less than 315 feet of the rescue shaft in steel pipe.
The rest of the escape shaft is exposed rock, and the rescue team has decided it's strong enough to provide a smooth ride for the miners' escape capsule.
Mining Minister Laurence Golborne set the date after the shaft was inspected with a video camera Saturday, following the completion of the hole earlier in the day, a success that set off celebrations by the miners underground and by their families and rescue workers on the surface.
Hundreds hug, cry
Within seconds of the drill reaching the miners, a chorus of truck horns echoed through the valley, sending a long-awaited signal to relatives who had spent the past 48 hours in a vigil of hope. Hundreds of relatives hugged, cried and climbed up the mountainside to celebrate. On a hillside, surrounded by 33 flags — one for each of the trapped men — families cheered and began to imagine the day their loved ones would be free.
"It is almost over; they are about to get out," said Roberto Reyes, 45, a miner whose uncle Mario Gomez is in the mine. Gomez, 63, is the oldest miner and has been a spiritual leader for the trapped men.
Jeff Hart, of Denver, was operating the drill when it broke through. "There is nothing more important than saving, possibly saving 33 lives. There's no more important job than that," Hart said. "We've done our part; now it's up to them to get the rest of the way out."
The milestone thrilled Chileans, who have come to see the rescue drama as a test of the nation's character and pride, and eased some anxiety among the miners' families.
Golborne and other government officials, meanwhile, had insisted the decision on whether to reinforce the whole shaft would be purely technical, based on evidence and the expertise of a team of eight geologists and mining engineers.
The hole "is in very good condition and doesn't need to be cased completely," Golborne said.
The decision to line the upper walls with steel pipe is to prevent rocks from tumbling into the shaft and blocking the way. But installing tons of steel pipes is not without risk and could even cause further collapse.
An extraordinary array of international talent was gathered and new rescue techniques pioneered on the fly to plow through rock without compromising the miners' safety.
Chilean officials brought in advisers from NASA, had steel rescue capsules custom-built, and fed the trapped miners meat pies baked in the form of cylinders to be slipped down a narrow hole to more than 2,050 feet below the surface.
Drama not yet over
Golborne tamped down Saturday's festivities by reminding families, "We still haven't rescued anyone."
The next phase of the rescue effort is expected to be perilous.
The men will be raised one by one in the capsules, nicknamed the Phoenix, which engineers are concerned could snag on the walls of the shaft. The miners themselves, some weakened by the ordeal, might have to set off dynamite to widen the hole on their end so the capsules have enough clearance.
It will be a tight fit. The rescue shaft is not straight, bending through rocky walls and providing as little as a few inches of room around a capsule. The miners have been keeping their weight under control so they can fit inside the capsules, which are about 21 inches wide and built with suggestions from the NASA team.
Atop the rescue drill, operators of the U.S.-made T-130, which beat two other rigs working simultaneously to reach the miners, celebrated by pumping their fists in the air and spraying each other with Champagne.
The gold and copper mine, near the northern city of Copiapó, caved in Aug. 5, but it was not until 17 days later that a small bore hole reached the miners and they sent up a message telling rescuers they were alive.
Chilean officials have involved the miners in their own rescue, with duties intended to aid the work as well as their psychological health. On Saturday they helped the drillers bore through the final few feet, said Claudio Soto of Schramm, the maker of the T-130 drilling rig.
Soto said the miners were in radio contact with Hart, the chief driller, telling him when the tip of the drill first appeared. That way Hart could slow the machinery down and avoid a sudden breakthrough of the entire drill, which would have put undue strain on the equipment.
Workers spent much of Saturday removing bars and evaluating the integrity of the rescue hole with a lowered video camera. Soto said there were noticeable fractures in the walls from the surface down to 98 feet.
The miners will be extracted one at a time, with two capsules alternating voyages. Each capsule contains tanks of oxygen-enriched air, a hands-free phone and retractable rollers to protect it as it bounces along the walls of the rescue shaft.
Compiled from The Associated Press, The Washington Post and The New York Times
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