Countdown to freedom begins

Trapped miners: Chileans hope to start evacuation by Wednesday
Last Updated 10 October 2010, 16:48 IST
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Drillers have completed an escape shaft, and Chile’s mining minister says a video inspection shows the hole’s walls are firm enough to allow the men to be hoisted out as early as Wednesday. Officials on Saturday night said workers first must reinforce the top few hundred feet (almost 100 metres) of the tunnel and had begun welding steel pipes for that purpose.

The completion of the 28-inch (71-cm)-diameter escape shaft on Saturday morning caused bedlam in the tent city known as “Camp Hope”, where the miners’ relatives had held vigil for an agonising 66 days since a cave-in sealed off the gold and copper mine on August 5.

Miners videotaped the piston-powered hammer drill’s breakthrough at 2,041 feet (622 metres) underground and could be seen cheering and embracing, the drillers said. On the surface, the rescuers chanted, danced and sprayed champagne so excitedly that some of their hardhats tumbled off.

Later, a video inspection of the shaft gave rescuers enough confidence in the tunnel’s stability that they decided they will encase only its first 315 feet (96 metres).

The plan is to insert 16 sections of half-inch (1.27 cm)-thick steel pipe into the top of the hole, which curves like a waterfall at first before becoming nearly vertical for most of its descent into a chamber deep in the mine. That work would begin immediately, Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said.

Then an escape capsule built by Chilean naval engineers, its spring-loaded wheels pressing against the hole’s walls, can be lowered into it via a winch and the trapped miners brought up one by one.

“All rescues have their risks,” Golborne said. “You can never say that an accident could not happen.” Golborne and other government officials had insisted that determining whether to encase the whole shaft, only part of it or none of it would be a technical decision, based on the evidence and the expertise of a team of eight geologists and mining engineers.

Some miners’ families wanted the entire shaft lined with pipe, but some engineers involved said the risk of the capsule getting jammed in the unreinforced hole was less than the risk of the pipes getting jammed and ruining their hard-won exit route.

Health Minister Jaime Manalich said a list has been drawn up suggesting the order in which the 33 miners should be rescued.

“What began as a potential tragedy is becoming a verified blessing,” President Sebastian Pinera said in Santiago. “When we Chileans set aside our legitimate differences and unify in a grand and noble cause, we are capable of great things.”

(Published 10 October 2010, 16:48 IST)

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