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Workers to break ground on Chile mine escape route

After 17 days of searching and a week of relishing good news, rescue efforts set to begin in earnest.

Miner Luis Ulloga
Miner Luis Ulloga waits for explosives he put on a tunnel to go off, at the San Javier mine in Copiapo, in the Atacama desert north of Santiago, on Aug. 27, 2010. (Ariel Marinkovic/AFP/Getty Images)

COPIAPO, Chile — If a wave of immense joy swept the country a week ago when the 33 trapped miners sent word on a note attached to a drill that they were alive and well, then a quiet euphoria pervades today, as the work officially begins Monday to carve out their escape route.

"We are extremely happy. I will never forget when I heard they had made contact with the miners," said Victor Carrasco, 57, who owns a small grocery in the city of Copiapo, located 28 miles from the San Jose mine in the Atacama desert of northern Chile.

"We have faith that the government will get the miners out," said Carrasco.

Work to drill an escape tunnel could take three to four months to complete, officials say. Chile Mining Minister Laurence Golborne told reporters Saturday evening that there are at least 10 other rescue plans under consideration and a “Plan B” may be implemented simultaneously with the primary work of the 26-inch rescue hole now underway using a 40-ton high-tech drilling machine provided by Chile’s state copper company Codelco.

Already, in the past week rescue workers have managed to complete three bore holes measuring 4 inches in diameter in order to inject more fresh air below, improve communication links and provide daily essentials such as food and water.

Under “Plan B,” one of those holes is to be widened to 12 inches using a specialized device normally used to make water holes. Initially, this hole will be widened in order to facilitate getting larger supplies to the trapped miners. But they are evaluating whether it could be widened further still in order to facilitate a faster rescue of the miners.

Walter Herrera, quality control and risk manager for the Chilean GeoTech company, which is providing the equipment to be used in the possible Plan B, said that he is optimistic that this alternative plan, which utilizes a hole situated closer to the miner’s emergency shelter, would achieve results in as little as two months.

All the hopefulness not withstanding, many here are skeptical about government reforms to tackle hazardous mining conditions to help prevent future accidents.

In particular, there is even doubt that the San Jose mine will remain closed given the abundant ore that still remains.

"Mark my words, in two years time another company will arrive and set up at a different side of the mine in order to get the minerals out. This country is still ruled by economic interests," said Heraldo Valenzuela, 60, a taxi driver in Copiapo.

The mining industry has long been Chile’s main economic income, and despite significant diversification of the country’s economy over the past few decades, copper and minerals still account for nearly half of Chile’s exports and government coffers rise and fall on the fortunes of global copper prices.

But the spotlight on the 33 miners of San Jose has brought a renewed focus on Chile’s miners. There are calls to put back the image of a miner to the Chilean equivalent of the U.S. one dollar bill. In the early 1970s, the Chilean 500 peso bill, which were then called “escudos,” featured a miner.