Rescuers drilling into a cavern where 33 Chilean miners are trapped completed a borehole ahead of schedule raising hopes the men could be out earlier than expected.
The 30cm-wide drill guided by a pilot hole half its diameter reached 630m beneath the surface, puncturing the top of a passage near the chamber in the San Jose copper and gold mine where the men have taken refuge.
The next step is to place a wider drill on the rig and start a hole 70cm across – wide enough for the miners to get out.
Video shot by the miners and released by the government later last night showed scenes of bedlam below when the drill broke through, sending a shower of water and rock down into the chamber.
“We are extremely excited by what has been done today,” said miner Mario Sepulveda.
The government previously said it would take until early November to rescue the miners under the most optimistic scenario.
But mining minister Laurence Golborne said that now “we’re a little bit ahead.” The earlier estimate had built in the possibility of more setbacks than the effort has seen so far, he said.
Golborne did not provide a new estimate.
The miners have endured sweltering conditions for weeks, and the discipline and resiliency they have shown through their ordeal has been a point of pride among Chileans – especially so as the nation celebrates the bicentennial of its independence today.
The miners celebrated the bicentennial Thursday, with beef and empanadas, and they decorated their chamber with a plastic Chilean flag.
Two rigs have been drilling holes separately to ensure that rescuers would not have to start from the beginning if a major problem arose. A third, much larger rig is to begin drilling on Monday.
Once the larger hole is dug, it will be reinforced with a metal sleeve. The miners will be hoisted up in an steel “escape capsule” that is still being designed but will be fitted with oxygen tanks and a communications system.