U.S. drill operator Jeff Hart, right, celebrates alongside Elizabeth… (Hector Retamal, AFP/Getty…)
Reporting from Copiapo, Chile — When the drill finally broke through to the miners Saturday, sounds erupted in a symphony of relief: the cheers of family members, the blowing of horns throughout the mine, and the shouts of the men 2,300 feet below.
For more than two months, the 33 miners have been trapped in their pitch-dark claustrophobic refuge after a cave-in at the mine in the Atacama desert in northern Chile. At one point, they were even left for dead.
But at 8 a.m., the whine of the rescuers' powerful drill as it punched through the rock to reach a tunnel used by the men signaled that the end of their ordeal could be near.
Later in the day, Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said the process of pulling the trapped men up to the sunlight could begin Wednesday, after the shaft is partially lined with casing to cover the roughly 300 feet closest to the surface and a winch is installed for the rescue pod.
Golborne said he foresaw no problems with the unprecedented attempt, but "all rescues carry risks. You can't ever say it doesn't exist in this kind of operation."
Despite its forbidding desert mountain setting, the tent village dubbed Camp Hope began to take on a festive air in anticipation of a happy ending. At a balloon-festooned stage where a Mass was celebrated Saturday night, a clown named Rolli led the miners' children in songs and games.
Loved ones who have held a constant vigil and braved the kind of international media swarm that accompanies the election of a pope, expressed happiness mixed with anxiety as the "Plan B" shaft reached the miners.
"We're very happy to hear that they reached them, because my father-in-law needs to get out of there as soon as possible," Claudia Jimenez said of trapped miner Omar Regadas, 56. "He is very stressed out, and he is beginning to have eye problems from being in the dark so long."
Nine-year-old Nicolas Regadas had a message for his grandfather: "I want him to know that I have been waiting here to hug him."
When the escape shaft is complete, the miners are to be brought to the surface one at a time in a half-ton metal capsule only 26 inches in diameter.
The pod will be lowered by cable to a point more than 2,000 feet below the surface at a tunnel adjoining the 600-square-foot "refuge," which had been the miners' lunch room and became their prison.
Lifting each miner will take 30 minutes to an hour. After a couple of hours at a makeshift clinic nearby, each will be airlifted by helicopter to the Copiapo Regional Hospital for two days of observation.
Adjusting to the feeling of no longer being buried alive will take longer.
"Los 33," as they called themselves, have endured 90-degree heat and 90% humidity that made their living quarters a sauna and a hothouse for fungal diseases.
They have lived on carefully measured rations lowered through a smaller shaft and a prescribed exercise program. Their medical condition has been closely monitored, as has their mental state; each talked to a government-commissioned psychologist once a day.
The drilling to reach the men has been a life-and-death race to bore through tons of rock.
The U.S.-made Schramm T130 drill began boring down at the San Jose mine on Sept. 3, one of three drilling operations that have been rushing to free the miners. The fact that they were alive was discovered Aug. 22, after a terrifying limbo of 17 days in which authorities feared that they were all dead.
The miners will have to use explosives to widen the mouth of the rescue shaft where it meets the underground tunnel. Miguel Fortt, an independent mining engineer and consultant who is advising the miners' families, said in an interview Friday that the widening is to ensure that the metal capsule has room to settle on the mine's uneven floor without damaging the tube-like enclosure.
He said the miners are accustomed to using explosives and that the widening should not involve any great additional risks.
Operators of the drill could hear the jubilant miners below celebrating the breaching of the underground chamber.
"They felt the same joy we did," said Mijali Proestakis, the engineer who directed the 36-day drilling operation as a subcontractor for Geotec, the Chilean mining company that bought the drilling machinery from Pennsylvania manufacturer.
Proestakis said the drill head included five air hammers to pierce the rock. He said the drill is normally used to dig water wells, mining air shafts and holes for pilings for bridges and tall buildings. But never to his knowledge has the drill been used to punch through such hard rock at these depths.
"It's completely unheard of," Proestakis said.
Proestakis said the rock that the drill had to penetrate was fairly uniform and very hard. Still, the drill won the race against two other machines in the shafts known as Plan A and Plan C, making faster progress than was anticipated by the government.