The extraction of Chile’s 33 trapped miners is expected to begin on 13 October after a drilling breakthrough.
Rescuers were finally able to plan for the miners’ safe removal – on the 66th day of their being trapped underground – when a drill punched through an escape shaft into an underground chamber.
An inspection of the new hole revealed that it is mostly strong enough to help them escape, with only a stretch at the top needing to be reinforced with a steel pipe.
The government’s mining minister expects the rescue to begin within days.
Contractor Jeff Hart of Denver, Colorado, operated the drill, pounding through solid rock and the detritus of the collapsed mine, which corkscrews deep below a remote hill in Chile’s Atacama desert.
“There is nothing more important than saving – possibly saving – 33 lives. There’s no more important job than that,” Hart said.
“We’ve done our part, now it’s up to them to get the rest of the way out.”
While the Plan A and Plan C drills stalled after repeatedly veering off course, the Plan B T130 drill reached the miners on Sunday at 1200 GMT, after 33 days of drilling.
The milestone thrilled Chileans, who have come to see the rescue drama as a test of the nation’s character and pride.
“What began as a potential tragedy is becoming a verified blessing,” president Sebastian Pinera said in a triumphant speech at the La Moneda palace in Santiago.
“When we Chileans set aside our legitimate differences and unify in a grand and noble cause, we are capable of great things.”
But there is still a lot to do, mining minister Laurence Golborne stressed.
“We still haven’t rescued anybody,” he said. “This rescue won’t be over until the last person below leaves this mine.”