ENGINEERS were in the early stages of drilling an escape route yesterday for 33 Chilean miners trapped deep underground, as officials insisted their ordeal may last until Christmas.
Away from the men’s families and the media, the giant, Australian-made Strata 950 excavator will bore a 33-centimeter (13-inch) wide pilot hole.
This must then be doubled using a special drill bit to 66 centimetres — wide enough to lower a rescue capsule down to pull out the miners one by one.
The process, which began late on Monday, will be painstaking and delicate, and Chilean officials have warned the rescue operations could last up to four months, despite a shorter period being predicted by several experts worldwide.
Even in the most optimal of conditions, the drill will only progress some 15 to 20 meters per day.
After 26 days languishing in hot, dank conditions in the San Jose gold and copper mine 800km north of Santiago, some of the miners have developed fungal infections and body sores while others are showing signs of depression.
During the lengthy shaft drilling, the men have to work in shifts around the clock to clear rocks and debris falling from above, all the time hoping the precarious operation does not cause another collapse.
“They will be helping us. They will be giving us clear information on the state of the mine,” said lead engineer Jorge Sanhueza.
The final rescue will take place at night to protect the miners from the sunlight after months spent in near darkness. They will be blindfolded and wear specially designed protective clothing to protect them from thermal shock after living in extremely hot, humid and cramped conditions.
It will take three to four days as each worker must be painstakingly raised from 700 meters (2,300 feet) below.
In conjunction with the drilling, a new phase of medical and food care began for the men, following a slow rehydration and nourishment programme after they were discovered nine days ago.
The mission is “unprecedented in medical history”, according to Health Minister Jaime Manalich.
The miners’ heroic tale came to light when a note scribbled in bold red letters was found tied to a drill probe on August 22, by which time all hope for their survival was thought to have been extinguished.
A captivated nation heard how the miners managed to make 48 hours worth of emergency supplies last an astonishing 17 days, digging into the ground to get water to keep themselves alive.
The US space agency NASA said it would dispatch a team this week to help efforts to keep the miners fit and healthy.
Expertise on how astronauts deal mentally and physically with arduous space journeys could help the miners cope during the long months ahead in their dark, subterranean world.
“The environment may be different, but the human response in physiology, behaviour, responses to emergencies is quite similar,” said NASA deputy chief medical officer Michael Duncan, one of the four-strong team.
Duncan will be accompanied by a NASA engineer, a psychologist and a second medical doctor.
Conditions for the trapped miners improved over recent days as they were sent dry clothes, food supplies and games to occupy their time.
Some also received mats to sleep on to protect them from the damp ground.
Miner Johnny Barrios, the designated doctor among the group due to his brief medical training, gave his colleagues vaccinations against tetanus and will administer flu shots today.
Smokers have been denied cigarettes, but have been given nicotine patches to help them cope with withdrawal symptoms.
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