They may not have seen daylight yet, but the 33 men who have been stuck down a mine in northern Chile since early August have at last got a proper whiff of freedom, after the escape tunnel that is expected to eventually take them to freedom was completed.
Shortly after 8am local time, a siren blasted through “Camp Hope,” where families of the men have been nervously sleeping in tents for the past 65 days, to announce that a drill had finally reached the underground cavern where the men are trapped.
More than 700 metres above the heads of the miners, tearful relatives rushed onto the hillside overlooking the San José mine, in a remote patch of desert roughly an hour’s drive from the city of Copiapo, and began cheering and waving red, white and blue Chilean flags.
Laurence Golborne, the Mining Minister who has been transformed into a national hero over the past two months, requested calm in a subsequent press conference, at which he stressed that the men may still be several days away from reaching the surface.
“This is an important achievement, but we still haven’t rescued anybody” he said. “There is still a lot to find out, a lot to do and many precautions we have to take. This rescue won’t be over until the last person below leaves the mine.”
Now that the “Plan B” drill has bored a shaft broad enough for a man’s shoulders has down to the area of where the men are stuck, the job of getting the to the surface could take anywhere between another two and ten days.
The timetable hinges on whether rescuers need to decide to line the tunnel with steel tubing before they attempt to drop the steel escape capsule, dubbed “Phoenix” down it. A steel lining would prevent it from snagging, and would also protect the miners in the event of an earthquake or rock fall, but it could also complicate the rescue process.
“You would have to put though a 600-meter hole a lot of pipes that weigh more than 150 tons,” said Golborne. “And this steel piping could be set in a position that also could block the movement of the Phoenix. So it’s not an easy decision to make.”
Lining the entire tunnel will take up to ten days. Lining just the first 100 metres, which is considered the most likely option, will take a little over 48 hours. After that, it will take another hour, per miner, to lift the men to safety.
Today will see a further six hours of tests as cameras are lowered into the duct to inspect the walls for smoothness, strength and uniformity. Meanwhile two machines drilling rival escape tunnels are continuing work, in case of any mishaps.
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