When Chile mine rescue drillers punched their 27-inch bit into a passage Saturday where miners trapped deep underground for more than two months were waiting, pure joy erupted above ground.
Workers on the surface exulted and family members embraced.
"They were very excited, shouting and singing and everything else," says James Stefanic, operations manager at drill operator Geotec Boyles Bros.
But there's much more work to be done to get the miners up to the surface safely, and there's little room for mistakes.
"I am really happy because we have accomplished a new step in this rescue process, but we haven't finished yet," said Chilean Mining Minister Laurence Golborne after technicians had inspected the escape shaft, which was completed Saturday morning. "There are a lot of things to do and we have to make no mistakes."
More delicate work before the rescue is complete
Rescuers are now aiming for Wednesday to begin to hoist the 33 miners from the copper and gold mine.
Workers both on the surface and down in the mine are scrambling to complete a more than 2,000-foot-deep shaft wide enough for the miners to be pulled up in small capsules. They are now using a crane to line the top of the shaft with a 24-inch steel pipe to keep rocks from falling down the shaft and potentially jamming one of the cages that will be used to haul up the miners.
The majority of the shaft appears to be stable without reinforcing pipe, so the rescue capsules will be hauled up through bare rock, Mr. Golborne said. The rock didn't crumble as drillers repeatedly pulled the drill bit out and reinserted it, meaning it seems to be "competent" rock, says Richard Soppe of bit manufacturer Center Rock Inc., who helped navigate the bit down the hole.
Down in the mine, the trapped workers set off explosives yesterday afternoon to expand the staging area for the three cages, which are known as Phoenix capsules.
Just bring them up safely, say relatives
Family members, who have camped out at the mine since days after the Aug. 5 accident, were unanimous in saying that it doesn't matter how long it takes, as long as their relatives get out safe. Many family members have started asking not to be quoted in the press as the number of reporters on the scene has swelled to more than 1,000 amid global attention to the rescue.
Once the steel pipe is installed, workers need to install winches to handle the capsules, and then test the shaft with empty capsules. They will then send down a mine rescuer and a paramedic to help the trapped workers put on NASA outfits that will monitor health on the ascent and ensure that people are in the cage correctly. The healthiest workers will be sent up first, to ensure that the ascent is bearable.
"We have concerns about acute hypertension during the lifting process," said Health Minister Jaime Mañalich at a press conference Saturday. "We are trying to exercise them a lot with very hard work, to get them use to acute stress during the process that is going to last 15 or 20 minutes."
The workers will be greeted by family members and put into immediate medical care at the top of the well, Golborne said. After a few hours of rest, they will be taken by helicopter to the hospital in Copiapo, the nearest city, he said.
The rescuers will work in 12-hour shifts, and will send up miners over the course of at most two days, Golborne said.
Drilling continues on another shaft in case anything goes wrong with the first one, Golborne said.