Families of 33 miners trapped inside a collapsed copper and gold mine in northern Chile since early August have been shown the rescue capsule that authorities hope will eventually bring their loved ones safely to the surface. Crowds waiting outside the San Jose mine near the city of Copiapo on Saturday chanted "Viva Chile!" as the steel cage, named "Phoenix" was driven into the compound where the delicate operation to free the men, who are confined to a cavern 700 metres below ground level, is being coordinated.
Relatives were allowed to step inside the capsule, which is 10-feet high and 28 inches wide and has been specially designed by the Chilean navy. "I'm happy because we've been waiting for this for 50 days," the wife of one of the trapped miners, Elizabeth Segovia, told reporters. It will take until early November to complete work on the tunnel down to the chamber where the men have been trapped since the roof of the mine collapsed on 5 August.
The Chilean health minister, Jaime Manalich, said two people – "a mine rescue expert and a highly trained paramedic" – will descend into the chamber where the men are waiting, at the start of the rescue bid, to co-ordinate the operation.
First, an Austrian-made system of cranes and pulleys will slowly lower the capsule down the slightly-angled rescue tunnel. Provided the cage doesn't hit any snags, each of the 33 trapped men will then step into its compact rescue compartment for the journey to the surface. Underneath their feet will be a container holding three tanks of compressed air, containing 60 per cent nitrogen and 40 per cent oxygen, which is sufficient, if necessary, to keep each of the men alive for an hour and a half.
They will be able to communicate with the surface through a microphone throughout, and in the event of the capsule getting stuck, an escape hatch will allow them to be lowered back down via cables. The entire process will last several days. The miners are being kept alive with provisions, clothing and medicines being sent down three slender boreholes. They are based in a 50-metre squared chamber, though have several kilometres of galleries to also move around in.
Hedging their bets, rescue workers are using three different machines to drill down to the men, who have broken all records for underground survival. The most advanced one has so far made it through 175 metres of rock. "The machines are working normally. There are no problems," said mining minister, Laurence Golborne.
Even when they are returned to their families, the ordeals will be far from over. Their employer, the San Esteban Mining Company, is in dire financial straits and on Friday had its assets frozen by a court in Santiago. Though the government has guaranteed that salaries will be paid, the men are likely to find themselves unemployed by Christmas.