Breakthrough! Now for 33 very careful rescues

As they say all over Chile: ‘Fuerza mineros!’ - strength to the miners. Guy Adams reports from Camp Hope at San José mine

Sunday 23 October 2011 06:33

Punching the air, as bells and car horns rang out over the San José mine, and grinning from ear to ear, Roxanna Gomez rose from the chair where she'd spent yet another nervous night waiting by the campfire and hugged her family in celebration of a moment they scarcely dared to believe had actually arrived.

Shortly after dawn, 66 days after a rockfall trapped her father, Mario, and 32 of his colleagues half a mile beneath the surface of a remote Chilean mine, a team of rescue workers rushed into the tent city they've been calling Camp Hope to announce that a drill had finally broken through to the cavern where the men are trapped.

The news, at exactly 8.05am, caused a joyful crowd to scamper up the misty hillside overlooking the remote desert outpost to wave their red, white and blue Chilean flags, and cheer excitedly at the weary men who have now guided the Plan B drill through more than 2,300ft of solid rock. After that, they rushed into the camp and staged an impromptu victory parade.

"I've had so many thoughts, imagining how this moment would be," said Roxanna, tearfully clutching her husband, Alonso, and their three children, Marion, Bastian and Lisethe. "It's been so tense, such a nervous time. We've not been able to sleep, because we knew that the drill could break or stop working at any moment. Now we can start looking forward to seeing Dad, talking to him, and having a big family party. It'll be quite a celebration."

When news came yesterday morning local time that the drill had opened up the whole shaft, they rang bells for a straight hour. Roxanna says: "When they broke through, we were crying for almost as long as the bells were ringing."

Later in the afternoon, workers involved in the rescue marched the plan B drill out of camp. There was pandemonium, as the drill operator, Jeff Hart from Denver, Colorado, led the procession.

This is what unbridled joy was like, as we approach the culmination of one of the most audacious and unlikely rescue attempts in human history. "Los 33," as the miners are known, have been stuck underground since 5 August, when a rockfall blocked their exit from the small, privately owned gold and copper mine.

For 17 days, they survived on starvation rations: eating two spoonfuls of tuna, a few sips of milk and a biscuit every 48 hours, and powering their torches from lorry battery. Then, after an exploratory probe reached the cavern where they were trapped, the men were kept alive with food, water, clothes and medicines sent down supply tubes three inches wide.

Yesterday, they were using those supply lines in reverse: posting mementoes of their ordeal back to the surface. Meanwhile, in Camp Hope, the wives and children who have been making do with occasional phone calls from loved ones were having their hair cut in preparation for the moment when they will be reunited.

"In the letters and the calls that we've been having from Dad, he's been saying for days that he can feel that the machine is getting closer," added Roxanna. "He's just really happy. I am allowing myself to believe that by maybe Thursday or Friday, he'll be out and back with us."

Mario Gomez isn't quite out of the deep hole yet, though. He and the rest of the trapped men are painfully aware that they still face what could be the most dangerous part of the rescue operation so far: the painstaking effort to lift them to freedom, one by one, up a 26in-wide shaft, which is only just wider than a grown man's shoulders.

Officials were at pains to stress that it could be a long and arduous process. After the shaft was inspected with a video camera on Saturday, mining Minister Laurence Golborne announced that the 33 miners will probably start being brought out on Wednesday. Before then the rescue team will be busy reinforcing less than 315 feet (96 meters) of the escape shaft in steel pipe. The rest of the shaft is exposed rock, which the team has deemed solid enough to provide for a smooth ride for the miners' escape capsule. The purpose of the lining is to prevent capsules from snagging, and to protect miners if there is an earth tremor while they are being raised to the surface.

Mr Golborne also revealed that the miners staged a controlled explosion down in the mine on Saturday afternoon to clear rock to make room for escape capsules, dubbed Phoenix 1, 2 and 3, to emerge below. Speaking to reporters yesterday, he said: "This is an important achievement, but we still haven't rescued anybody. There is still a lot to find out, a lot to do and many precautions we have to take."

Adding to the pressure on rescuers to adopt a "safety-first" approach was the fact that a small earth tremor was felt in the camp yesterday morning. Like most of Chile's copper production facilities, which largely produce gold as a by-product, the San José mine is in the middle of an earthquake zone.

Before the final stage of the rescue commences, 13 engineers and three paramedics will be lowered into the sprawling cavern where the miners are waiting to be freed. They will check on the physical condition of each of the men, and work out the order in which they will be raised, one by one, to the surface. The fittest will go first, then those who have fallen ill, then, last, those considered to be the mentally toughest. Each journey to the surface will last roughly 15 minutes, but it is expected that the entire operation will take about 30 hours.

Once they emerge, with sunglasses to protect their eyes, each will be checked by a doctor, then taken to a mine facility to meet two close family members. After that, they will be airlifted to hospital in Copialpo where the rest of their relatives will be waiting.

The Gomez family, whose patriarch, Mario, is the oldest of the trapped men and who has taken a leadership role underground, say the men have been given media training for the inevitable global fame that awaits them. More than 1,000 journalists, from almost every country, had arrived at the scene last night, forcing workers to use bulldozers to build extra parking and camping sites.

"My father knows that he's going to have to tell his story, but he says he's going to do it calmly," said Roxanna yesterday. "He says the men are feeling very unified, after two months down there with one another, and they have agreed that the first interview is going to be with all 33 of them, together."

The families are also focusing on a more pressing priority: they have been foregoing alcohol in solidarity with the trapped men throughout the two months they have been camping, in often freezing overnight conditions, outside the mine. Last night, they were stockpiling beer and wine for what they hope is an imminent celebration.

Additional reporting by Patrick Bodenham

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