Chile mine rescue enters new phase

The evacuation of the miners is likely to start on Wednesday, according to the country's mining minister Laurence Golborne.

Golborne cautioned against early jubilation, warning: "We still haven't saved anyone yet."

The 33 miners have endured the longest known underground entrapment ever - more than two months - all the while connected to the world through audio and visual links.

Now they have to keep their nerves as Chilean engineers deploy a pioneering method to lift them to safety.

Starting as early as Wednesday, engineers will lower the 53-cm-wide cage, specially designed by the Chilean navy, through a shaft that bends and twists 624 metres into the copper mine. Side wheels with shock absorbers are intended to prevent the capsule from hitting the walls.

The clearance is about five centimetres. The Chileans are really writing the book on this kind of rescue," The New York Times quoted a US engineer as saying.

"There haven't been this many guys that deep for this long. It just hasn't been done before," said Clint Cragg, who was part of a NASA consulting delegation to the mine site in recent weeks.

The disaster was "ending as a true blessing," said Chilean President Sebastian Pinera. "The government and all the Chileans have shown unity, strength, and hope ... admired by the whole world. This shows that when Chileans unite for a cause, we are always able to reach our goal."

But there is much still to do before a possible Wednesday rescue. The drill had to be removed from the shaft, which will take at least 24 hours.

Engineers needed to examine the inside for breakage and cracks, to determine if a pipe lining is needed to shore it up. Officials said that at least the upper 96 metres of the shaft would be stabilised with steel piping.

And engineers had to build a winch over the shaft to lower and lift the escape capsule.
It was likely that the miners will use explosives at the bottom of the shaft to enlarge the chamber and make space for the four-metre-long capsule, dubbed "Phoenix", rescue chief Andre Sougarret indicated.

The 32 Chileans and one Bolivian have been trapped in the rocky depths after a mine shaft collapsed Aug 5.

It will likely take two days to free the men one-by-one in the single cage, he said.
At the sound of the breakthrough in the ceiling Saturday, the men sang the Chilean national hymn, engineer Jorge Camacho reported. "The miners are doing well," Goldborne emphasized.

But Health Minister Jaime Manalich emphasized that 10 of the men are much weaker than the others.

They will be hauled up in three different groups - the strongest and most technical savvy will come first, to iron out glitches in the elevator; the sickest and weakest will come second; the others last.

The men have lost dozens of kilograms of weight underground, eating strictly controlled diets sent down through a tiny tube that reached them Aug 17. Some have had to slim down to fit into the rescue capsule, CNN reported.

The breakthrough Saturday sent a deafening cheer around the makeshift camp of engineers, family members and media at the mine site, bringing life to the isolated Atacama Desert 800 km north of Santiago.

Sirens wailed and a teacher at a makeshift school clanged the schoolhouse bell for half an hour.

As the drill team drove their heavy machinery away from the camp, their work finished, they were celebrated with a victory parade amidst honking horns and loud applause.

The rescue operations were being watched closely especially in the world mining community - such as that of Somerset County, Pennsylvania, where nine miners survived chill flooding water for 77 hours in 2002.

At the time, the Quecreek rescue was one of the greatest known mining rescues of all time.

"We would love for Chile to take that banner and say we've  done one better," one of the rescued Quecreek miners told CNN.

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