Trapped Chilean miners could be free a month early

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The families of 33 trapped miners are in high spirits today after a surge in the drilling of escape tunnels raised hopes that the men's rescue may come sooner than scheduled.

Relatives smiled, hugged and yelled "Viva Chile!" as officials reported one of the rescue drills made twice the expected progress yesterday.

They promised the families that preparations for the rescue effort on the surface would be ready by October 12, and they are planning for the possibility the miners could be pulled up nearly a month ahead of the official schedule.

But the officials also urged caution, warning that unforeseen problems could slow the work.

A siren sounded at 5pm on Tuesday in the camp where families have held a vigil since a rock collapse blocked the mine's exit shaft on August 5. At first, no one knew what it meant, just that it was good news.

Then, rescue workers came down to report that the "Plan B" drill had reached 984 feet deep, nearly halfway to its goal, after advancing 243 feet on Tuesday, more than twice as fast as expected.

At that pace, barring complications, the drill could break through to the miners in about five more days, and be reinforced with a metal sleeve even before October 12.

We're "happy for this depth they reached. We needed just this kind of attitude", Alberto Segovia told the Associated Press. His brother Dario has been trapped in the gold and copper mine for 54 days.

Three drills are pounding through hard rock below the Atacama desert to reach the miners. "Plan B" is a US-made T-130, operated in consultation with a team from Pennsylvania that had experience in the 2002 Quecreek mine disaster, where a similar tunnel was carved to pull out nine trapped coal miners.

Many observers had put their bets on "Plan C", a towering oil-industry drill with the power to rapidly carve a separate tunnel to a spot slightly less deep. Now it looks like either drill might be the one to reach the miners first.

Above ground, the government is rushing to set up a field hospital and a huge stage where the media can observe the rescue from a distance.

The first rescue capsule has already arrived, but workers still need to attach it to a huge spool of steel cable. These and other tools will be ready in 15 days, interior ministry official Cristian Barra promised.