Chile anticipates ‘great day’ as escape shaft nears 33 miners trapped underground since August

By Vivian Sequera, AP
Friday, October 8, 2010

Chile sees ‘great day’ with escape shaft near done

SAN JOSE MINE, Chile — Excitement grew Friday outside the mine where 33 men have been trapped for more than two months, as a drill carving an escape shaft pushed through the final section of rock above their underground chamber.

“Today could be a great day,” tweeted Mining Minister Laurence Golborne, quoting a song by Joan Manuel Serrat.

Health Minister Jaime Manalich, speaking briefly as he arrived at the mine, raised expectations even more by repeating “Tuesday” back to reporters who asked if the men could be pulled out that day.

The miners’ families kept vigil overnight, singing songs around a bonfire and doing early morning calisthenics to shake off anxiety and shivers in the bitter desert cold.

“Just a little bit left to go, a very little bit,” said Cristina Nunez, whose husband, Claudio Yanez, is trapped below. Still, she wants rescuers to take no chances, waiting a few days more if necessary to pull them all out safely.

The “Plan B” drill is just yards (meters) away from winning a three-way race to reach the miners with a hole wide enough to accommodate their escape capsule. “Plan A” and “Plan C” had to slow down after repeatedly veering off course in recent days.

Manalich said the drill paused Friday morning for a maintenance check before the final push. New depth figures weren’t released, but a technician working with the T130 drill told The Associated Press that just 128 feet (39 meters) remained before the drill breaks through to the miners at 2,047 feet (624 meters) below ground. The technician spoke on condition of anonymity because only top government officials and rescue coordinators are authorized to talk to the media.

The T130 is aiming at a workshop that isn’t as deep underground as the refuge where the miners happened to be eating when 700,000 tons of rock collapsed on Aug. 5 in the middle section of the gold and copper mine, which runs like a corkscrew for more than four miles (7 kilometers) below a rocky hill in Chile’s vast northern Atacama desert.

Once the drilling is complete, a video camera will be lowered through the shaft to help determine whether the miners can be pulled up through the exposed rock, or must wait for the shaft to be encased with steel piping to reduce the remote risk of something going wrong. Golborne said the casing would take three to eight more days, and a decision could be made Saturday.

President Sebastian Pinera sent his wife Cecilia Morel to meet with the miners’ families Friday and announced that Bolivian President Evo Morales will join him for the rescue. One of the trapped miners is Bolivian.

The actual rescue is expected to take 48 hours as the miners are pulled out one by one, a made-for-TV spectacle that has drawn nearly 800 journalists to this isolated spot in the desert.

Chileans have rallied around this spare-no-expense rescue effort, and Pinera has surged in popularity for his close management of the crisis.

“What started as a tragedy should end as a great blessing, because this epic of the miners has illuminated the soul of our country and strengthened the Chileans’ spirit,” Pinera said in a speech in southern Chile.

He said his government “has acted as a government must in these kinds of situations. … When we realized that day, Thursday, Aug. 5, that the San Esteban mining company wasn’t capable of handling the rescue, we decided to take on complete responsibility. And just as I said on that first day, we would do everything humanly possible to pull them out alive.”

Sen. Isabel Allende, joining her constituents around their bonfire Thursday night, said “the battle isn’t over.”

“Chile is a country that is able to confront its challenges, but on the other hand it is a country that still has a long way to go,” said Allende, the daughter of Salvador Allende, the socialist president ousted by Gen. Augusto Pinochet in 1973. “We must keep working for safety in the mines.”

Associated Press writer Eva Vergara in Copiapo, Chile, contributed to this story.

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