Chilean rescuers finished drilling an escape shaft on Saturday for 33 miners trapped deep underground after a cave-in over two months ago, triggering cheers and tears from relatives on the surface.
Rescue workers jumped for joy as the drill pushed through the last centimetres of a nearly 625m shaft they had drilled to free the men, live television footage showed. Family members of the miners ran up the hill above the mine waving Chilean flags.
Relatives and friends hugged and kissed as news spread the shaft was finished, and a bell rang and horns sounded in the tent settlement dubbed “Camp Hope” erected at the mine. Some waved balloons, others sobbed in elation. Champagne corks popped.
“I’m so happy, I’m going to have my son back!” cried Alicia Campos, whose son, Daniel Herrera, is among the trapped.
Trapped for 65 days so far, the men have set a world record for the length of time workers have survived underground after a mining accident. They are in remarkably good health, although some have skin infections.
It will still take days to hoist them to the surface one at a time in special capsules just wider than a man’s shoulders, in one of the most complex rescue attempts in mining history. The men will wear special tinted glasses to avoid damaging their eyes after their long stay in a tunnel with dim lighting.
“This hell we’ve been living is almost at an end,” said Cristina Nunez, singing and waving a flag as she awaited the rescue of her husband, Claudio Yanez. “My daughters are so happy.”
Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said rescuers would decide later on Saturday how much of the inside of the shaft they would line with metal tubing, and when they would likely start the evacuation. Golborne said previously it would take between three and 10 days to start evacuating the miners once the shaft was finished.
The miners must also conduct a controlled explosion down in the mine to make sure there is room for the escape capsules to emerge below.
Relatives and friends of the trapped miners have held candlelight vigils at the accident-plagued gold and copper mine in the far northern Atacama desert since the August 5 collapse, and will stay put at the mine until the men are pulled out.
“I’m so happy I’ll soon be able to hug my son,” said Norma Lague, whose 19-year-old son, Jimmy Sanchez, is trapped. “I’m going to tell him I love him, I’m going to touch him and listen to him.”
The wives of some miners have been having their hair done in one of the tents set up as a makeshift hairdressing salon, as they prepare to be reunited with their husbands.
Some of the men have sent back to the surface keepsakes of their ordeal such as letters, crucifixes and clothes from the tunnel they called “hell”.
After the cave-in, engineers initially bored narrow shafts the width of a grapefruit to locate the men.
When they were found 17 days after the accident, all still alive, celebrations sprang up across Chile. Rescuers then passed high-energy gels, water and food down the narrow ducts to keep the miners alive.
President Sebastian Pinera’s wife, Cecilia Morel, travelled to the mine to lend psychological support to the miners’ relatives.
“Don’t let’s set our hearts on an exact evacuation date, let’s trust the experts,” Morel told relatives of the miners overnight. “It’s like waiting for a birth. It seems the mountain has started to dilate, but the dilation is 2cm.”
The government brought in a team of experts from Nasa to help keep the men mentally and physically fit during the protracted rescue operation. The men lost an estimated 10kg each in the two-and-a-half weeks before they were found alive. – Reuters