An enormous drill has begun preliminary work on carving a half-mile chimney through solid rock to free the 33 men trapped in a Chilean mine, their ordeal now having equalled the longest known survival in an underground disaster.
The 31-ton drill bored 50 feet into the rock, the first step in the week-long digging of a "pilot hole" to guide the way for the rescue. Later the drill will be outfitted with larger bits to expand the hole and pull the men through - a process that could take four months.
The men were trapped on August 5 in the San Jose mine in Chile's northern Atacama Desert. Before rescuers dug bore holes to reach them, they survived for 17 days without contact with the outside world by rationing a 48-hour supply of food and digging for water in the ground.
Only three miners who survived 25 days trapped in a flooded mine in southern China last year are known to have survived underground as long. Few other rescues have taken more than two weeks.
With Chilean officials saying the men could remain underground for another four months before the rescue hole is completed, the ordeal will be an unprecedented challenge for rescuers, but they have the tools to be successful.
"The drill operators have the best equipment available internationally," said Dave Feickert, director of KiaOra, a mine safety consulting firm in New Zealand, who has worked extensively with China's government to improve dangerous mines there. "This doesn't mean it will be easy," he added. "They are likely to run into some technical problems that may slow them down."
In addition, a union leader has expressed concern for the men's livelihoods. San Esteban, the company that operates the mine, has said it has no money to pay their wages and absorb lawsuits, and is not even participating in the rescue. State-run mining company Codelco has taken over.
Union leader Evelyn Olmos called on the government to pay the workers' wages starting in September, plus cover the roughly 100 other people at the mine who are now out of work and 170 more who work elsewhere for San Esteban. Its licence has been suspended by the government.
Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said the government was prohibited by labour laws from assuming responsibility for the salaries. He said it was up to the mining company and would have to be worked out in Chilean courts. Golborne noted the extraordinary circumstances of the mine collapse but pointed out there are many other Chileans who lack a job and said the government cannot be responsible for all of them.
In an eight-minute video released by the government, the second made by the trapped miners, about a dozen of the men sent greetings to their families and said they were feeling better since receiving the sustenance and supplies, including special clothes to keep them dry in the hot, humid mine.