Chile miners: First retrieval could come before end of the day
Chilean officials said Tuesday the first of 33 miners trapped 2,300 feet underground for two months may be lifted to freedom within hours via a metal rescue capsule.
If all goes smoothly, all the miners should be freed during the next two days, officials said.
“We are really working as fast as possible to get these miners out,” Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said during a televised news conference.
Golborne said he was not ready to declare “mission accomplished” despite his confidence in the rescue preparations. He said officials hope at least one of the miners will be out of the mine before the end of the day Tuesday.
Near the site, relatives held vigil at an area that’s become known as Camp Hope.
“Here the tension is higher than down below,” said Veronica Ticona, the sister of one of the miners, the Associated Press reported. “Down there they are calm.”
Officials said that after the miners leave the rescue capsule they will receive triage at a makeshift clinic near the mine before being evacuated to the Copiapo hospital for two days of observation. The 40-mile road leading from Copiapo to the mine would close at 8 p.m. local time to facilitate land evacuation of the miners if the skies are too cloudy for helicopters.
In a test run Monday, engineers succeeded in lowering the rescue capsule almost all the way down the hole.
Golborne told reporters Monday that the team preparing to retrieve the miners trapped since Aug. 5 had finished the job of partially lining the uppermost part of the shaft with metal tubing to guard against cave-ins. Officials had been concerned that the 28-inch-diameter hole could be unstable and thereby jeopardize the progress of the rescue capsule.
"It was a very promising test," Golborne said. "The video camera that was inside the capsule to survey the hole found no irregularities of the walls."
He said the timing of the miners' retrieval depended on how quickly a platform could be completed to support a winch that will lower and raise the capsule.
President Sebastian Pinera was expected to arrive at the mine Tuesday to see the rescue and greet the miners.
Health Minister Jaime Manalich said Monday the miners were excited about their impending rescue but seemed to be in control of their emotions. "They are much calmer than those of us up here above," Manalich said.
The government said four members of the rescue team — two engineers and two medics — will be lowered down the shaft first to assist in the operation and to evaluate the physical and mental state of the miners. The men — 32 Chileans and one Bolivian — have endured 90-degree heat, high humidity, claustrophobic conditions and darkness since an underground collapse of tons of earth sealed off the mine exits more than two months ago.
The determination of the order in which the miners will be rescued had not been made and may be deferred until the operation is underway and rescuers have a chance to examine the miners underground. The government has said that some of the most fit and mentally alert miners will come up first to give the government an idea of the condition of the rest of the miners and to observe the rescue.
The government has three rescue capsules ready. Golborne said the casing stopped at a little more than half the length initially planned because it had achieved its purpose of reinforcing the weakest rock and because adding more would jeopardize the integrity of the tubing.
The test run of the capsule stopped about 50 feet short of the floor of a tunnel adjacent to the refuge where the miners are huddled.
Manalich said the last men to be hoisted to safety would be the four rescue team members.
"The rescuers, these heroic compatriots, will stay to the end," Manalich said.
-- Chris Kraul in Copiapo, Chile
Photo: A boy and his father await news in the main square of Copiapo, north of Santiago. Credit: Claudio Santana /AFP/Getty Images
Photos: Chile miner rescue
Live video: Chilean miners rescue operation
Graphic: Narrow escape way for miners
Map: Copiapo, Chile