By Patrick Bodenham at the San Jose mine
The rescue of 33 trapped Chilean miners could now be hours rather than days away, after engineers announced that they had completed the painstaking process of reinforcing the first 96 metres of the escape shaft to the cavern where the men have been trapped for more than two months.
Adding steel tube to the upper section of the half-mile long route took less time than originally expected, meaning that the operation to return the men to the surface, which was originally scheduled to commence some time on Wednesday, could now begin late on Tuesday night.
Chile’s mining minister, Laurence Golborne, confirmed that the sixteen sections of steel tubing, which will hopefully prevent accidents when the “Phoenix” escape capsule is raised through a relatively-unstable section of rock near to the surface, were welded together and lowered into the shaft through the course of the night.
The casing is meant to line the top section of tunnel against falling rocks and sand together with the treat of an earth tremor in what is an active earthquake zone. Video analysis has shown that the rock further down is solid enough to survive without reinforcement.
Chile’s health minister, Jamie Manalich, said he spoke with each of “Los 33” as the trapped miners are known, late on Saturday, and praised their extraordinary “solidarity and camaraderie.” All of the men are in “good condition,” he added, saying their high spirits are evident in the fact that they’re even competing for the arduous job of being the last person to return to ground level.
“What we have below isn’t 33 patients, but 33 healthy and mature people who are entirely self-supporting and capable of dealing with a test of strength probably never encountered before by any other human beings,” he said. “They face severe difficulties, but I am confident that they will continue to show the amazing spirit which we have all come to admire so much.”
Later today the rescue team hopes to begin practice runs of the escape, with an empty Phoenix capsule. But first the construction of a pulley system over the mouth of the shaft must been completed.
Once that work has been carried out, an empty cage will be lowered several times to check it does not snag on the inside of the tunnel. Before the first miner is returned to the surface, three paramedics and thirteen engineers will join them underground.