A drill has broken through the rock to Chile’s 33 trapped miners, offering them a way out after 66 days underground.
The drill’s success was announced with the blast of a siren that prompted cheers, tears and embraces across “Camp Hope”, where families of the miners have kept vigil since the disaster on August 5.
Families of the miners reacted with joy at the news.
“Our nervousness is gone now,” said Juan Sanchez, whose son Jimmy is stuck in the mine. “Only now can we begin to smile.”
However, Mr Golborne cautioned: “This is an important achievement, but we still haven’t rescued anybody...This rescue won’t be over until the last person below leaves this mine.”
The “Plan B” drill won a three-way race against two other drills to carve a hole wide enough for an escape capsule to pull the miners out one by one.
While “Plan A” and “Plan C” stalled after repeatedly veering off course, the “Plan B” drill reached the miners at a point 2,047ft below the surface after pushing through the final 128ft overnight.
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.
But now comes a difficult judgment call: The rescue team must decide whether it’s more risky to pull the miners through unreinforced rock or to insert tons of heavy steel pipe into the curved shaft to protect the miners on their way up.
President Sebastian Pinera reminded Chileans yesterday that he had promised “to do everything humanly possible” to keep the miners safe.
Steel pipe would prevent stones from falling and potentially jamming the capsule, but it wouldn’t save a miner if the unstable mine suffers another major collapse, and might itself provoke a disastrous setback, mining minister Laurence Golborne said.
If close video examination persuades engineers that the shaft is smooth, strong and uniform enough to let the capsule pass without significant obstacles, then rescuers plan to start pulling the men out one by one as early as Tuesday, in a made-for-TV spectacle that has captivated the world.
The miners will be initially examined at a field hospital where they can briefly be reunited with up to three close relatives.
Then they’ll be flown by helicopter in small groups to the regional hospital in Copiapo, were a wing of 33 fresh beds awaits to care for them for no fewer than 48 hours.
Only after their physical and mental health is thoroughly examined will they be allowed to go home.