A Chile mine rescue effort may free the first of 33 Chile miners trapped for two months in a collapsed copper mine as soon as this weekend, months ahead of initial estimates that they would still be trapped until after Christmas.
"We expect to arrive in the gallery on Saturday if there's no major problem with the drilling," Eugenio Eguiguren, executive vice president at drilling company Geotec Boyles Bros., said today in a telephone interview. His company is operating one of three drills racing to reach the miners' shelter.
After the crew finishes drilling, he says, they will lower a video camera to inspect the walls of the hole to determine whether casing is necessary. If not, the process of hoisting up the workers could begin within two days, he said.
"There is a humanistic pressure to rescue people who are trapped 600 meters deep as soon as possible," Mr. Golborne told reporters. "Hopefully we will be able to do it in five days, which is the soonest possible."
Not a rush job
But even as pressure grows for a speedy conclusion to their ordeal, Golborne said today that the government will not rush the job.
"They've been down there 61 days. If they are out in 70 or 80, that's much better than 120," he said, referring to initial estimates that the miners would have to stay underground until December.
The three drills in operation have all faced delays because of maintenance, mechanical failures, and inadvertent detours as they have cut through the hard bedrock. Still, the progress overall is faster than initially forecast. The most advanced drill at this point is overseen by Geotec Boyle Bros. and known as Plan B, an American-made rig normally used to drill water wells.
According to the government's daily progress report, the drill progressed 30 meters (100 feet) in the 24 hours ending yesterday morning. It had only 160 meters to go, or less than six days of work at that rate.
The miners became trapped Aug. 5 when a tunnel collapsed across the only working exit from their underground mine. They were feared dead until Aug. 22, when a drill pierced their shelter and the men sent up the letter saying: "All 33 of us are fine in the shelter."
Since being discovered alive six weeks ago, they have been rebuilding their strength and helping with the rescue effort. They have had about a mile of tunnel to walk around in and have been surviving on food sent through small holes drilled from the surface.
Logistics for the rescue are mostly complete. There is a field hospital on the scene, a platform for camera crews, and a team of rescuers. The government has brought in cages that will be lowered to the miners, who will enter and be hoisted to the surface using a steel cable. Each hoist will take about an hour, and then another hour to lower the cage again. The rescues will be conducted at night so as to protect the miners' eyes
Still, the timing of the final rescue remains up in the air. The government has been planning to spend as much as 10 days lining the newly drilled shafts with a metal tube to prevent rocks from falling during the rescue effort. That may not be necessary, if geologists decide that the rock walls are solid enough to hold up without reinforcement.
The rescue date was initially announced for late December and then revised to November. Golborne said last week that it would happen in the second half of this month.
"We are very close to rescuing them and I hope to be able to rescue them before going to Europe," President Sebastian Piñera told reporters Sunday. "It's very important for me to take part in this moment."
He had been planning to travel Oct. 15 and said he may adjust his schedule for the rescue. Mr. Piñera flew to the mine site Aug. 22 to announce that the miners had been discovered alive. He and Golborne have enjoyed heightened popularity in Chile on the success so far of the rescue effort.