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Chile rescue capsule passes test

The pod is lowered nearly to the bottom of the shaft that is to be miners' exit route.

October 12, 2010|Chris Kraul | Kraul is a special correspondent.

COPIAPO, CHILE — In a test run Monday, engineers succeeded in lowering a rescue capsule almost all the way down the 2,000-foot hole through which crews plan to lift 33 trapped miners, perhaps starting late Tuesday or early Wednesday, government officials said.

Chilean Mining Minister Laurence Golborne told reporters that the team preparing to retrieve the miners trapped since Aug. 5 had finished the job of partially lining the uppermost part of the shaft with metal tubing to guard against cave-ins. Officials had been concerned that the 28-inch diameter hole could be unstable and thereby jeopardize the progress of the rescue capsule.

"It was a very promising test," Golborne said. "The video camera that was inside the capsule to survey the hole found no irregularities of the walls."

He said getting the men out of the mine will take two days and could begin as early as Tuesday night. The timing depends on how quickly a platform can be completed to support a winch that will lower and raise the capsule.

President Sebastian Pinera is expected to arrive at the mine Tuesday to see the rescue and greet the miners.

Health Minister Jaime Manalich said the miners were excited about their impending rescue but seemed to be in control of their emotions. "They are much calmer than those of us up here above," Manalich said.

The government said four members of the rescue team -- two engineers and two medics -- will be lowered down the shaft first to assist in the operation and to evaluate the physical and mental state of the miners. The men -- 32 Chileans and one Bolivian -- have endured 90-degree heat, high humidity, claustrophobic conditions and darkness since an underground collapse of tons of earth sealed off the mine exits more than two months ago.

The determination of the order in which the miners will be rescued had not been made and may be deferred until the operation is underway and rescuers have a chance to examine the miners underground.

The government has said that some of the most fit and mentally alert miners will come up first to give the government an idea of the condition of the rest of the miners and to observe the rescue.

The government has three rescue capsules ready. Golborne said the casing stopped at a little more than half the length initially planned because it had achieved its purpose of reinforcing the weakest rock and because adding more would jeopardize the integrity of the tubing.

The test run of the capsule stopped about 50 feet short of the floor of a tunnel adjacent to the refuge where the miners are huddled.

Manalich said the last men to be hoisted to safety would be the four rescue team members.

"The rescuers, these heroic compatriots, will stay to the end," Manalich said.

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