AFTER more than two months trapped deep in a Chilean mine, 33 miners were yesterday tantalisingly close to rescue.
Drillers have completed an escape shaft, and Chile’s mining minister says a video inspection shows the hole’s walls are firm enough to allow the men to be hoisted out as early as Wednesday.
Officials said late Saturday that workers first must reinforce the top almost 100 metres of the tunnel and had begun welding steel pipes for that purpose.
The completion of the 71-centimetre diameter escape shaft on Saturday morning caused bedlam in the tent city known as “Camp Hope,” where the miners’ relatives had held vigil for an agonising 66 days since a cave-in sealed off the gold and copper mine on August 5.
Miners videotaped the piston-powered hammer drill’s breakthrough at 622 metres underground and could be seen cheering and embracing, the drillers said.
On the surface, the rescuers chanted, danced and sprayed champagne so excitedly that some of their hard hats tumbled off.
Later, a video inspection of the shaft gave rescuers enough confidence in the tunnel’s stability that they decided they will encase only its first 96 metres.
The plan is to insert 16 sections of 1.27 centimetre thick steel pipe into the top of the hole, which curves like a waterfall at first before becoming nearly vertical for most of its descent into a chamber deep in the mine. That work would begin immediately, Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said.
Then an escape capsule built by Chilean naval engineers, its spring-loaded wheels pressing against the hole’s walls, can be lowered into it via a winch and the trapped miners brought up one by one.
“All rescues have their risks,” Golborne said. “You can never say that an accident couldn’t happen.”
Golborne and other government officials had insisted that determining whether to encase the whole shaft, only part of it or none of it would be a technical decision, based on the evidence and the expertise of a team of eight geologists and mining engineers.
Encasing the full shaft would have added another week or so before the rescue could begin – if it could actually be done.
While the possibility of an accident can never be ruled out, the hole “is in very good condition, and doesn’t need to be cased completely,” Golborne said.
The political consequences were inescapable. Chile’s success story would evaporate if a miner should get stuck on the way up for reasons that might have been avoided.
Some miners’ families wanted the entire shaft lined with pipe, but some engineers said the risk of the capsule getting jammed in the unreinforced hole was less than the risk of the pipes getting jammed and ruining their hard-won exit route.
Many experts doubted whether encasing the entire shaft was even possible.
Health Minister Jaime Manalich said the miners’ anxiety is growing about starting their rescue, an operation that should take about a day and a half to complete.
Manalich also confirmed that a list has been drawn up suggesting the order in which the miners should be rescued. The final order will be determined by a Navy special forces paramedic who will be lowered into the mine.
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