Slowly, surely, and with growing confidence that every passing hour is bringing them closer to freedom, the 33 men who have been trapped inside a Chilean mine for more than two months are preparing for a jubilant homecoming, as the operation to free them enters its closing stages.
After a weekend of raucous celebration, following news that a drill had finally bored through 2,300 feet of rock to reach the cavern where they are living, the miners were told that one of history’s most remarkable escapes is now within their grasp. If everything goes according to plan, they can expect to see their families and breathe fresh air again sometime on Wednesday.
Rescue workers spent yesterday putting a steel safety lining inside the first 96 metres of the shaft that will bring the miners to freedom, which is believed to be the most unstable section of the route. Once that operation is completed, at around 9am tomorrow, they will begin installing the complex pulley system that will help the “Phoenix” capsule lift the men, one-by-one, to the surface.
Chile’s health minister, Jamie Manalich, said he spoke with each of “Los 33” as the trapped miners are known, late on Saturday, and praised their extraordinary “solidarity and camaraderie.” All of the men are in “good condition,” he added, saying their high spirits are evident in the fact that they’re even competing for the arduous job of being the last person to return to ground level.
“What we have below isn’t 33 patients, but 33 healthy and mature people who are entirely self-supporting and capable of dealing with a test of strength probably never encountered before by any other human beings,” he said. “They face severe difficulties, but I am confident that they will continue to show the amazing spirit which we have all come to admire so much.”
The men have been working out with rubber exercise bands and going on vigorous runs to prepare themselves for the hot and claustrophobic journey to the surface, which will see them spend around 15 minutes inside a compartment that measures just 23 inches across.
Mr Manalich said they will soon be placed on a nutrient-rich liquid died that is designed to prevent nausea and vomiting during the journey, and “give them reserves of energy to deal with the physiological stress they will have to endure.”
Despite the increasingly-hopeful mood, officials were anxious to stress that the trapped men are by no means out of the woods yet. They are still half a mile underground, and must survive the most complex mining rescue in history. In an effort to manage expectations, Chile’s Mining Minister, Laurence Golborne, said yesterday that it was “perfectly possible” that the escapes may not commence until Thursday.
Major hazards include the possibility of the “Phoenix” snagging. The interior of the shaft is jagged, rather than smooth, and parts are at an eleven degree angle from vertical. That means the capsule must effectively turn a small corner to reach the area where the men have been trapped since a rock fall blocked their exit route from the San Jose copper and gold mine on August 5th.
Attempts to prevent friends and families from feeling over-confident are however doing little to dampen the growing carnival atmosphere in Camp Hope, the tent village at the surface of the mine, which is situated in a remote and hilly patch of desert roughly an hour’s drive from the northern city of Copiapo.
After two long months waiting for their loved ones, wives and girlfriends of the miners spent today having haircuts at a makeshift hair salon and deciding what to wear at the moment when they will finally be reunited. Two of the women, who have become engaged to their boyfriends during the ordeal, were presented with a goody bag containing a bridal veil, along with a spandex posing-pouch, in the red, white and blue colours of the Chilean flag, which they will present their new fiancés.
Families were also sorting through packages of possessions which the men have started to send back to the surface, up 7.5cm wide communication tubes. “This is our postal service,” said Roxanna Gonzalez, daughter of the trapped miner Mario Gonzalez, sorting through a pile of cylindrical plastic containers. “For weeks and weeks, we’ve been sending down pretty much everything we could fit inside these tubes. Now my father is sending stuff back, ready for when he gets out.”
Among the items Mario returned to his family yesterday was an MP3 player, a small paperback Bible, a head-torch, and a somewhat moth-eaten hairbrush. “I guess he’s not worrying about how untidy his hair will look when he gets out,” added Roxanna. “I would suspect that he’s planning to ask my mother to sort it out for him.”
In Chile, where mining is hugely important to both the economy and popular psyche, the remarkably efficient rescue operation is already a source of huge national pride, and the country is preparing for several days of public celebration when the miners emerge. Flags, billboards and car-stickers bearing the slogan “Fuerza Mineros” ("strength to the miners") are everywhere.
Nowhere will they party harder, of course, than in the hard-scrabble residential areas on the outskirts of Copiapo, where 80 per cent of the workforce are employed by the copper industry, and where most of “Los 33” lived in small concrete houses. Every day, busloads of locals arrive at Camp Hope to pray for missing friends, and bring supplies to their relatives.
In the neighbourhood of Til Til Bajo, where two of the men lived, Veronica Alvornos, who lives next door to the home of trapped miner Pedro Cortez, beamed from ear to ear as she detailed the enormous quantities of beer, wine, and Pisco – the Chilean national spirit – which is being stockpiled in preparation for the enormous street party that will celebrate his safe return.
“We’re closing it all off, the whole street!” she said, pointing from one end of the dusty road to the other. “This will be the party to end all parties!” The square around a tin-roofed Catholic chapel where locals have convened each night to pray for “Los 33” will be cordoned off so that a band playing “Cumbia” music can perform. “We’ve sent a girl out, round the houses, to collect donations and put together everything that people are willing to offer to give the lads a proper welcome home.”
The growing excitement, in Chile and around the world, underscores the enormous celebrity the miners will experience when they emerge. In preparation for their release, they have been receiving media training, aimed at helping protect their interests when huge sums of money are offered by news outlets wanting to hear exclusive details of their experience underground.
In the spirit of solidarity that appears to be defining this rescue bid, the men have apparently agreed that the first interview they take part in will involve all 33 of them. They are said to have asked for a legally-binding contract be sent down to the cavern, so they can sign an agreement to share equally in that interview’s proceeds.
Additional reporting by Patrick Bodenham