Escape shaft progress boosts miners
Excitement is growing outside the Chile mine where 33 men have been trapped for more than two months, as a drill carving an escape shaft reached the final section of rock above their underground chamber.
"Today could be a great day," tweeted mining minister Laurence Golborne, while health minister Jaime Manalich, speaking briefly as he arrived at the mine, raised expectations even more by repeating "Tuesday" back to reporters who asked if the men could be pulled out that day.
The miners' families kept vigil overnight, singing songs around a bonfire and doing early morning callisthenics to shake off anxiety and shivers in the bitter desert cold.
"Just a little bit left to go, a very little bit," said Cristina Nunez, whose husband, Claudio Yanez, is trapped below. Still, she wants rescuers to take no chances, waiting a few days more if necessary to pull them all out safely.
The "Plan B" drill is just yards away from winning a three-way race to reach the miners with a hole wide enough to accommodate their escape capsule. "Plan A" and "Plan C" had to slow down after repeatedly veering off course in recent days.
Mr Manalich said the drill paused on Friday morning for a maintenance check before the final push. New depth figures were not released, but a technician working with the T130 drill said just 128 feet remained before the drill breaks through to the miners at 2,047 feet below ground.
The T130 is aiming at a workshop that is not as deep underground as the refuge where the miners happened to be eating when 700,000 tons of rock collapsed on August 5 in the middle section of the gold and copper mine, which runs like a corkscrew for more than four miles below a rocky hill in Chile's vast northern Atacama desert.
Once the drilling is complete, a video camera will be lowered through the shaft to help determine whether the miners can be pulled up through the exposed rock, or must wait as much as 10 more days for steel piping to be inserted in an operation that carries some risk of damaging the escape route.
President Sebastian Pinera sent his wife Cecilia Morel to meet the miners' families on Friday and announced that Bolivian President Evo Morales will join him for the rescue. One of the trapped miners is Bolivian.
The actual rescue is expected to take 48 hours as the miners are pulled out one by one, a made-for-TV spectacle that has drawn nearly 800 journalists to this isolated spot in the desert.