The ordeal for 33 Chilean miners who have spent two months trapped underground was nearing its end today.
Rescuers have reinforced the escape shaft and the 13ft-tall rescue chamber sliding, as planned, nearly all the way to the men.
They will come up one by one in green overalls bearing their names on their chests – first the fittest, then the weakest, twisting in a steel cage that proved itself with four flawless test runs deep into the earth.
“It didn’t even raise any dust,” mining minister Laurence Golborne said.
If all goes well, everything will be in place to begin pulling the men out on Wednesday morning.
The lead psychologist for the rescue team recommended the extractions begin at dawn. No official decision was announced but Andre Sougarret, the rescue team co-ordinator, tweeted that “today the miners sleep their last night together.”
Yesterday the Phoenix I capsule – the biggest of three built by Chilean navy engineers – made its first test run after the top 180ft of the shaft was encased in tubing, the rescue leader said. Then the empty capsule was winched 2,000ft, just 40ft short of the shaft system that has been the miners’ refuge since the 5 August collapse in the Atacama desert.
Engineers had planned to extend the piping nearly twice as far, but decided to stop after the sleeve – the hole is angled 11 degrees off vertical at its top before plumbing down, like a waterfall – became jammed during a probe.
Rescue team psychologist Alberto Iturra said he recommended the first man be pulled out at dawn because the miners are to be taken by Chilean air force helicopters to the nearby city of Copiapo and fog tends to enshroud the mine at night.
It is a roughly 10-minute flight, said Aldo Carbone, the choppers’ squadron commander. He said the pilots have night-vision goggles but will not fly unless it is clear. Ambulances will be ready for back-up. The drive would take about an hour.
Officials have drawn up a secret list of which miners should come out first, but the order could change after paramedics and a mining expert first descend in the capsule to evaluate the men and oversee the journey upward.First out will be the four fittest of frame and mind, said health minister Jaime Manalich. Should glitches occur, these men will be best prepared to ride them out and tell their comrades what to expect.
Next will be 10 who are weakest or ill. One miner suffers from hypertension. Another is a diabetic and others have dental and respiratory infections or skin lesions from the mine’s oppressive humidity. The last out is expected to be Luiz Urzua, who was shift chief when the men became entombed, several family members of miners said.
The men will take a twisting, 20-minute ride for 2,041 ft up to the surface. It should take about an hour for the rescue capsule to make a round trip.
Golborne said all would be ready by 12.01am tomorrow, local time (5.01am BST).
Media will be blocked by a screen from viewing the miners when they reach the surface. A media platform has been set up more than 300ft away from the mouth of the hole.
After being extracted, the miners will be ushered through inflatable tunnels, like the ones used in sports stadiums, to ambulances that will take them to a triage station. Once cleared by doctors, they are to be taken to another area where they will be reunited with one to three family members chosen by each miner.
After the reunion, the miners will be driven to a heliport for the flight to Copiapo.
Timeline of the events
- 5 August: 33 miners are trapped underground when part of the San Jose mine in Chile’s Atacama desert collapses.
- 6 August: mining minister Laurence Golborne flies in to lead the rescue mission.
- 7 August: A second collapse blocks access to the lower parts of the mine, hampering rescue efforts. President Sebastian Pinera visits the miners’ relatives. Attempts are made to drill holes to the miners, but no contact is made.
- 22 August: Rescue workers hear tapping on a drill that has reached a depth of 688 metres. The miners are confirmed to be alive when it is disclosed they have tied a note to a listening probe that reads “all 33 of us are well inside the shelter”. The first video of the miners is recorded and shows them to be in a better condition than feared.
- 23 August: Food, water and communication equipment are sent down a hole to the miners.
- 30 August: Rescuers decide the best way to free the miners is to drill three shafts and winch them to safety. The holes, named Plan A, Plan B and Plan C, are dug at the same time to try to rescue the men as quickly as possible.
- 26 September: The first of three rescue capsules built to lift out the men arrives at the mine.
- 4 October: Gifts sent to the miners during their period underground are returned to the surface in advance of their rescue.
- 9 October: The miners celebrate as a drilling rig breaks through into their underground chamber. It is decided that only the first 96 metres of the shaft need to be reinforced.
- 11 October: A test rescue capsule is successfully sent nearly all the way down to where the miners are trapped. Rescue team co-ordinator Andre Sougarret posts a message on Twitter reading: “Today the miners sleep their last night together”.