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Rescuers prepare escape shaft for miners' exit

world Updated: Oct 11, 2010 08:58 IST
Chilean rescuers

Chilean rescuers on Sunday reinforced an escape shaft to hoist 33 miners to freedom, bringing their stunning survival story close to its climax two months after they were trapped deep underground.

Engineers have drilled a narrow, nearly 2,050 foot-long (625-metre) shaft to evacuate the men, who have been using explosives to make room for a special capsule dubbed "Phoenix" that will lift them one-by-one to the surface.

The rescuers were inserting metal tubes to line the first 330 feet (100 metres) of the duct to strengthen it, and expect

to finish the task on Monday morning. The government aims to start the evacuation on Wednesday in one of the most complex rescue efforts in mining history.

"If everything goes really well (it might happen on Tuesday) and if things don't go so well, it could ... be Thursday," Mining Minister Laurence Golborne told reporters. "When we said on 'about Wednesday', it means that - it depends on the advances and setbacks that occur in such processes."

He said it could take up to two days to hoist all 33 men to the surface.

Celebrations broke out across Chile on Saturday when the drill broke through 65 days after the Aug. 5 collapse at the small gold and copper mine in the far northern Atacama desert.

Drivers honked car horns in the capital of Santiago and people waved flags in towns across a country still recovering from the ravages of a massive Feb. 27 earthquake.

After weeks of prayers, vigils and simply waiting, there was laughter, singing and dancing at the make-shift settlement called Camp Hope that relatives and friends of the miners have set up near the mouth of the mine.

"I'm so happy," said Cristina Nunez, whose partner, Claudio Yanez, is among the trapped. "I'm going to be able to be with Claudio before Oct. 21 -- my daughter's birthday."

President Sebastian Pinera said he planned to visit the mine on Tuesday.

Among the families waiting is weeks-old baby girl Esperanza, or "Hope," whose father is trapped miner Ariel Ticona. His wife, Elizabeth, named their daughter after the relatives' encampment.

Ticona saw the birth on a video sent down a narrow bore hole that served as a lifeline to pass water and food to keep the men alive during the ordeal, and he yearns to hold his daughter for the first time.

Once the men are winched to the surface, they will be given astronaut-style medical checks in a field hospital set up at the mine. Then they will be able to spend some time with their families, before being flown by helicopter to nearby Copiapo to be stabilized at another hospital.

The men have set a world record for the length of time workers have survived underground after a mining accident.

They are in remarkably good health, although some have developed skin infections. After spending so long below ground in a humid, dimly-lit tunnel, their eyesight will need time to adjust.

"They're demonstrating a totally admirable attitude, of solidarity and companionship," Health Minister Jaime Manalich told reporters. He said the miners had been volunteering to go last into the capsule rather than fighting to go first.

The government brought in experts from the U.S. space agency NASA to help keep the men mentally and physically fit during the rescue, which has gripped the world and drawn messages of support from Pope Benedict and World Cup soccer stars.