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A drill broke through Saturday morning to the chamber where 33 miners have been trapped half a mile underground for over two months in the Atacama desert, setting off the last phase of an unprecedented mine rescue effort that has brought in mining and engineering experts from all over the world.
Mining Minister Laurence Golborne confirmed that one of the three drills that were in parallel trying to reach the miners finished enlarging the shaft through which the miners will be lifted one by one in a special capsule made by the Navy shipyard.
The miners themselves have spent the last few weeks working in shifts around the clock removing every day approximately seven tons of earth and rocks that fell to the bottom as the drill made its way down.
Like the afternoon of August 22, when the workers were first discovered alive in the San Jose mine after a cave-in 17 days earlier, rescue workers and Golborne — whose popularity has skyrocketed — broke out in cheers. The miners’ relatives and friends, who have been living in a makeshift camp near the mine since the accident, tearfully celebrated this last and most critical stage of the drilling.
The rescue itself is still days away, however.
Pulling out the drill will take a large part of the day and then cameras will be sent down to carefully explore the walls of the shaft. Experts will determine whether the shaft should be reinforced with metal tubing all the way down or in some parts, and if so, this could take anywhere from three to eight additional days. The casing would prevent any fall-out from the walls of the shaft that could harm the capsule or imperil its route.
Once the shaft is ready, a group of rescue workers will be sent down to check on the miners’ physical and mental conditions and decide the order in which they will be lifted to the surface, a process that should last less than 15 minutes.
Each miner will be immediately taken to health care units that have already been assembled on site and then to a nearby hospital, where Health Minister Jaime Manalich expects they will remain at least two days. Earlier this week, Manalich said that many of the miners were experiencing dental and dermatological problems.
Since contact was made with the miners 47 days ago, they have been constantly assisted and closely monitored by psychologists, personal trainers and doctors. More recently, the miners were being coached on how to react to the avalanche of reporters and cameras waiting for them on the surface.
Undoubtedly, the 33 miners who routinely began their morning shift on August 5 will emerge entirely different men.