Chilean miners could be rescued by the weekend

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There may not be any daylight at the end of their tunnel quite yet, but the 33 men who have spent two months trapped in a collapsed Chilean mine learned yesterday that they could now be rescued in days, rather than weeks.

Engineers drilling through the half-mile of rock to the underground chamber where the miners have been living since an accident in early August said yesterday that one of their machines has now bored to a depth of 587 metres, leaving them a mere 160 metres to go.

If the operation proceeds as planned, they will break through to the area containing the men in the next three or four days, meaning that it is "perfectly possible" that they could be breathing fresh air by the weekend, according to Pedro Buttazzoni, the man in charge of the operation.

That was, he stressed in an interview with the BBC, a best-case scenario, dependent on his team deciding that the tunnel does not need to be lined with a metal casing that would help prevent the small rescue capsule, which has been designed to bring the miners to freedom, from getting stuck on the way up or down the shaft.

It is possible that the capsule, which has been designed by the Chilean navy, will no longer be needed and that the men can be lifted to the surface via an alternative method. Either way, if Mr Buttazzoni's tunnel, one of three being drilled, continues to proceed at its current rate, the men ought to emerge by the end of next week.

The timetable for the rescue has shortened dramatically in recent days. Originally, it was expected to take place in early November, although the Chilean government recently announced that late October was a more reliable date.

Chile's president, Sebastian Pinera, yesterday delayed by 48 hours a trip to Europe scheduled for next Friday, saying he wants to be at the scene near Copiapo, 450 miles north of Santiago, when the rescue takes place to "share that moment with the miners".

The trapped men, including one who has proposed to his girlfriend while underground, along with a former star footballer and a Bolivian national, have started getting ready for the trip home by using a tiny communication tube to send up the gifts that were sent down to their chamber over past weeks.

Juan Sanchez, the father of a trapped 19-year-old miner called Jimmy Sanchez, told reporters: "The capsule is tiny, without space for all his stuff. So he's sending it up bit by bit."

The men, who were cut off by a rockfall in the gold and copper mine, have now been trapped for 62 days, far longer than the survivors of any other mining accident, have been told to exercise regularly to prepare themselves for the return to the surface.

Jean Romagnoli, a sports physician who is in daily contact with the miners, said the mood underground is "very cheerful" but that they need to be fit for a final trip out of the chamber which could place them under severe stress.

"It could be very dangerous," he told reporters. "We want to prevent any type of overheating, because that can produce thermal shock, when your temperature rises above 42C [108F], which decomposes the proteins and you can have a hard time recovering. That could be fatal."

Once the men reach the surface, where their families are waiting, they will be stretchered to a helipad, which is being built on site, before being flown first to an army base and then to hospital in Copiapo.