Imprisoned for 65 days - now freedom is within touching distance

The fittest of the 33 miners will come up first; the bravest will wait their turn until the end of the rescue, writes Guy Adams in Santiago

The strongest miners will get out first. Then the sick ones. Last will be those considered brave and mentally sound enough to be left behind for a few extra hours in the subterranean cavern that has been their prison for more than two months.

As a rhythmically thumping drill came near to completing the narrow tunnel that will provide an escape route for the 33 men trapped half a mile down a remote Chilean mine, rescue workers spent yesterday finalising arrangements for the complex and potentially dangerous operation that they hope will bring the miners to safety.

Laurence Golborne, the country's mining minister, announced last night that "Plan B" – one of three powerful machines working to free the miners – had advanced to just 34 metres from the roof of the area where the men have been trapped since 5 August, when a rock fall blocked their exit from the San Jose gold and copper mine near the city of Copiapo.

The drill was expected to have reached the cavern by dawn today, possibly earlier, at which point the rescue team would begin evaluating whether the escape tunnel should be lined to make it safer. That, and other technical operations, which should take between two and 10 days, will need to be completed before the rescue can officially begin.

"Today could be a great day," Mr Golborne declared. "The rescue process will then take another few days. If we don't case the hole, we may have to wait for two, or three, or four days. If we have to start installing the casing, it may take between eight and 10 days, depending on how the installation of the crane and rescue systems proceeds."

Officials from the Chilean navy, which has built the steel escape pod, called Phoenix, that is expected to carry the 33 men up their 26-inch-wide escape tunnel to freedom, told reporters gathering at the mine how the final stages of their rescue operation will be organised.

Before anyone can be sent to the surface, 16 men will join the miners in the cavern where they have been living for 65 days. Their job will be to check on the men's physical condition and to ensure that they know how to use the rescue capsule safely during the 15 minutes it is expected to take to reach the surface.

The 16 men will include 13 engineers and rescue experts from the state mining company, Codelco, and three paramedics from the navy's special forces, who will work in shifts. The paramedics will evaluate each man's physical condition and have been given the authority to change the all-important list which suggests the order in which the men will be taken to the surface.

Commander Renato Navarro, the Chilean navy's submarine chief, said the list is based on daily examinations of the trapped men's physical and mental health and strength of character, which have been carried out via video and audio links since contact was first made with them on 22 August.

The first person up should be capable of handling setbacks in the claustrophobic shaft, and of holding his nerve long enough to advise colleagues how the process could be improved to avoid a repeat of any problems. Since the first miner rescued will inevitably achieve huge international celebrity, he should also be able to cope with the pressures of fame.

"The most able miners will leave first: those who can better describe to the next how they might avoid the potential problems that the capsule might encounter," said Commander Navarro.

"Then those with illnesses or who suffer from one problem or another. The last to come to the surface will be those who are strongest physically or in terms of their character."

Commander Navarro would not reveal the order of the list, since it may change if one of the 33 miners suffers a health setback, or if the medical team decides to make changes.

"The paramedics will have the last word," he said.

Speculation is nonetheless growing that the first man up will be Edison Pena, an amateur athlete who said he has been running 10 kilometres (6.2 miles) a day in the mine's tunnels. He is a huge Elvis Presley fan and has been working out while wearing an iPod loaded with the musician's complete works, which was sent down one of the small communication tubes that have been used to keep the men alive.

Candidates for the tough job of remaining behind with rescuers until their companions have all been taken to the surface include Jose Henriquez, who has been leading twice-daily prayer sessions. But many people believe the last miner up will be the shift supervisor, Luis Urzua, whose disciplined leadership was credited with keeping the men alive on emergency food supplies during their first 17 days, during which they had no contact with the outside world.

"It could be Urzua, but it's still not confirmed. The concept of a captain being the last one to abandon ship could be applied," Commander Navarro added.

The reception committee

When the miners emerge, they are guaranteed an all-star reception.

As well as the Chilean president Sebastian Pinera – who sent his wife to meet the miners' families yesterday – the Bolivian president Evo Morales is expected to be at the shaft entrance to welcome the men. One of the miners, Carlos Mamani, is Bolivian. Mr Mamani had been working in the mine for only five days before the accident. His family said he had been traumatised by what had happened and would never work in a mine again.

The Chilean Senator Isabel Allende – a cousin of the writer and a daughter of the former president Salvador – was already at the mine yesterday, around a bonfire along with family members of the trapped miners.

"Chile is a country that is able to confront its challenges, but on the other hand, it is a country that still has a long way to go," she said. "We must keep working for safety in the mines."

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