Workers to break ground on Chile mine escape route

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.

The plight of the 33 miners trapped nearly 2,300 feet below the collapsed copper mine has stirred Chileans. The national show of solidarity with the trapped miners has converted the miners into a badge of patriotism for this small South American nation of 17 million people.

In September, Chile celebrates its bicentennial, and the miners, who earlier this week were seen in an extraordinary video chanting the country’s national anthem from their shelter deep inside the earth, have become an inspirational symbol.

A country that is predominantly Roman Catholic, at the San Jose mine figures of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary are prominent. As such, family members were visibly moved by a message from the Pope at his Sunday's morning services. An onslaught of media from around the world has also made clear that the world is watching.

One leading Chilean businessman, Leonardo Farkas, has already donated $10,000 to each of the familes of the trapped miners, and is campaigning to get others to match his donation with the ultimate goal that each miner receive $1 million.

One of Chile’s leading folk music groups, Inti Illimani, played a surprise concert on Saturday for mining families installed at “Camp Hope,” the name given to the impromptu campground at the San Jose mine.

Chile’s mining minister said that the miners would soon receive a host of items to improve their living situation below, including a new set of clothing, special shoes to protect them from infections, flashlights, MP3 music players and a video projector and DVDs featuring movies and recorded soccer matches.

Providing entertainment to relieve boredom for the miners is one part of a plan to deal with the mental health of the miners. While they so far generally appear to be in good spirits, there are reports that at least five of the miners are suffering from depression.

Some 300 specialists, including a team of experts from the space agency NASA, are working on a plan to keep the miners in stable physical and mental condition so that they will be in proper shape for the final phase of extracting the miners. Chile Health Minister Rene Manalich calls the effort a “unique experience in human history.”

Altogether, Chile may have to spend as much as $10 million on the rescue operation. The drilling of the main rescue hole that begins on Monday will cost between $3 to $5 million, said officials.