Reporting from Copiapo, Chile — Barring last-minute complications, rescuers plan to reach 33 trapped Chilean miners by daybreak Saturday and then make a crucial decision that will determine how soon afterward they have them above ground.
Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said Thursday that a drill was within 300 feet of where the men have been stuck since the gold and copper mine collapse Aug. 5. It's the closest of three competing drilling operations racing to reach the miners, who remain huddled in a 600-square-foot refuge about 2,300 feet below the entrance of the mine.
At the current rate, the Schramm T-130 drill should reach the miners between midnight and dawn Saturday. But officials cautioned that the final stretch is especially delicate because the rock is weak just above the cavern housing the men.
Engineers won't decide until after the hole is completed whether to fully or partially line it with metal tubing. The decision will be made after an inspection with video cameras. The tubing is thought to be the best way to ensure the walls of the hole don't collapse onto the half-ton metal capsule that will be used to lift the men to safety. But the strategy carries the risk that the tubing could get stuck.
Sources with the Mining Ministry said the preliminary consensus was that the metal sleeve would be necessary only for the 350 feet or so closest to the surface, where the rock appears to be less stable than deeper down. Installing such a partial lining would mean one to two additional days before the rescue could begin, while placing a casing the entire length could take at least a week, Golborne said.
Excitement was building among family members Thursday at the prospect of their loved ones emerging. The men's entrapment is thought to be the longest in mining history before a rescue. Dozens of relatives of the men have kept vigil at the mine, camped in tents near the entrance.
"I'm anxious but I'm very excited to think I will soon be touching him and embracing him," said Norma Sanchez, whose 19-year old son, Jimmy, is the youngest of the miners. Asked whether she preferred that the entire hole be partially or completely lined with metal tubing, Sanchez said she preferred "the fastest" option.
Sanchez said families have been told that each miner will be allowed to have three relatives present to greet him when he is pulled to the surface in the capsule, named the Phoenix, a process that is expected to take 30 to 60 minutes per miner.
A medic and an engineer are to be lowered to examine and advise the miners before their ascend. The miners have already begun aerobic exercises to prepare for the change in environment, officials said.
For the ride up, the men will be given special glasses to protect their eyes, which have been in near continual dilation and could be damaged by the sunlight . As they are lifted, the miners will wear belts similar to those worn by NASA astronauts to measure their vital signs.
Kraul is a special correspondent.