– The crucial shaft being drilled for over two months, to evacuate the 33 trapped miners in Chile, ended on Saturday, setting off celebrations among family members who are close to the final rescue, the greatest achievement in survival underground worldwide.
Sirens, horns and bells were heard outside the mine as a sign that the machine completed its drilling to 622 meters depth, to begin the final phase in the rescue of the 32 Chilean and one Bolivian workers, in an unprecedented operation within the mining sector.
“I’m so happy! I will have my son back,” said the mother of Daniel Herrera, one of the trapped miners.
The T-130 drilling machine worked all night on Friday and early Saturday to reach the final meters in a key shaft, which will now be the umbilical cord that will bring the miners back to the surface.
“It seems strange we’ve been drilling for 33 days to rescue 33 miners. There is still a long way to go (…), but we have completed a new step, an important milestone in this rescue process,”, Chile’s Mining Minister, Laurence Golborne told reporters.
Now, the rescue leaders must decide whether to reinforce the pipeline with steel pipes in whole or part and then test it before starting the lifting process that will bring the miners to the surface inside a special capsule barely wider than the shoulders of a person, in a task that will take several days.
Relatives and friends of the trapped miners embraced with immense happiness and applause in the midst of the start of the final rescue phase after long days of vigil by candlelight at the gold and copper mine located in the remote Atacama Desert since its collapse on August 5.
“My heart is about jump out,” said the mother of Jimmy Sanchez, one of the miners of 19 years.
After confirming that marked the depth was reached, the mining minister said that now it’s a matter of defining when and how to make the final rescue.
Government sources said the initial idea would be to reinforce the first 60 meters of the pipeline with perforated steel tubes, because the rock in that section will be more unstable. But the final decision was taken after an image assessment from a video camera that will be lowered to the bottom of the mine in the coming hours.
If only the top part of the shaft is reinforced, experts estimate that the rescue, as such, would occur between Monday and Tuesday next week.
A historic feat
After the mine collapse, engineers initially made narrow holes, the width of a grapefruit, to find the men. From one of these holes, on August 22, a surprising white paper emerged with the following message in red letters: “We are all well in the shelter, all 33 of us’.
This first sign of life, 17 days after the accident, not only sparked celebrations around the world, but an unprecedented rescue operation. Since then they have been sent food, water, high-energy gels and medications through the narrow pipes to keep them alive.
The first video images captured with a camera sent through the small shaft, showed bearded men, bare-chested to deal with the heat and humidity within the depth in the small shelter within the heart of Chile’s mining region, the world’s largest copper producer.
Trapped for 65 days so far, these men have set a world record in the time workers have survived underground after a mine accident. They are in surprisingly good health conditions, although some have skin infections.
The wife of Chilean President Sebastián Piñera, Cecilia Morel, traveled constantly to Camp Hope, which the family established at the mine’s entrance, to provide psychological help to the relatives of the workers.
The government called an expert team from the U.S. space agency, NASA, to help to keep men in good physical and mental condition during the long rescue operation.
At the time of the miner’s rescue Chilean President Piñera and his Bolivian counterpart, Evo Morales, are expected to be at the camp to greet the protagonists of this survival feat.