By Patrick Bodenham at the San José mine
The countdown to the moment when 33 trapped miners are expected to see daylight for the first time in more than two months began in earnest this morning, after engineers began reinforcing the rescue shaft that they hope will eventually take them to freedom.
Shortly after eight o’clock this morning, workers began lowering sixteen sections of steel tubing into the “Plan B” escape tunnel, which was completed on Saturday morning. The metal will eventually line the first 96 metres of tunnel, which goes through a relatively-unstable section of rock near the surface.
If all goes according to plan, in an intricate technical operation that still carries many potential dangers, the rescue’s organisers say that they expect the first of the men to be freed some time on Wednesday.
Though the imminent rescue has been greeted with joy in Camp Hope, where families of the miners have been camped out since a rock fall trapped them on August 5th, Chile’s mining minister Laurence Golborne urged caution. “We still haven’t rescued anybody,” he said. “This rescue won’t be over until the last person below leaves this mine.”
The country’s Health Minister Jaime Manalich meanwhile told reporters that the miners’ anxiety is growing about starting their rescue, an operation that should take about a day and a half to complete as they are pulled out one by one in a claustrophobic capsule which has been dubbed: “The Phoenix.”
Manalich added that rescuers are worried that the return journey could damage the eyes of the men, who have been trapped underground for a record-breaking period of time. “They will come to the surface with their eyes closed and will immediately put on dark glasses which will protect them from the light,” he said. “Afterwards, they will keep them on night and day … until they get used to natural light.”
At the surface, an optimistic mood continued to prevail. “We feel an enormous happiness,” Darwin Contreras, whose brother Pedro, a 26-year-old heavy machine operator, is stuck in the San José mine, told reporters. “Now we just have to wait for them to get out, just a little bit longer now.”