With Drilling Near End, Chile Rescue Enters Risky Phase

After more than two months living nearly half a mile underground, the 33 miners trapped below this scorching desert could be just a few short days from emerging into what will seem like a blinding sun.

source: NY Times

Mounted polices patrol the surrounding area of the San Jose mine.

SAN JOSÉ MINE, Chile — After more than two months living nearly half a mile underground, the 33 miners trapped below this scorching desert could be just a few short days from emerging into what will seem like a blinding sun.

A powerful drill, twisting and pounding its way through the abrasive volcanic rock, was only about 130 feet from breaking through to the miners on Friday afternoon, nearly completing a rescue hole for them to be hauled to the surface, according to Chile’s mining minister. If all went well, he said, the drill could reach the miners early Saturday.

But a rescue would still be days away, and officials here warned that the operation was entering its most dangerous phase. Every decision, they said, carried a risk that the inspiring story consuming the Chilean government and captivating the world could quickly turn toward disaster.

“We have done everything that technology permits,” said Miguel Fortt, a consultant on underground mining rescues in the Atacama region. “If the Lord doesn’t send us an earthquake, we’ll be O.K.”

Romina Go?mez, daughter of one of the trapped miners, Mario Go?mez, on Friday. A rescue hole was close to completion.

The miners themselves may have to set off dynamite to widen the hole at their end so that the rescue capsule — named the Phoenix — has enough room. Engineers at the surface also need to decide whether to line the rescue hole with steel pipes to prevent loose rocks from falling into the shaft and damaging or blocking the capsule.

But whatever the approach, it is going to be a very tight fit. The rescue hole is only a little more than two feet wide and it is not even straight, which could create potential snags as the capsule shimmies up, carrying one man at a time.

“There’s only about two inches clearance around it,” said John E. Urosek, chief of mine emergency operations for the United States Mine Safety and Health Administration. “And they’ll have to pull it out of that depth so many times, it could get wedged.”

Much of the uncertainty stems from how unusual the rescue effort is, turning it into a case study for experts around the world.

“The Chileans are really writing the book on this kind of rescue,” said Clint Cragg, an engineer who was part of a NASA delegation to the mine in September. “There haven’t been this many guys that deep for this long. It just hasn’t been done before.”

An aerial view of Camp Hope, the makeshift commune where families have been living since the collapse at the mine.

Laurence Golborne, the mining minister whose ubiquity during the crisis has made him a household name in Chile, said the rescue could begin as early as Tuesday. Lining the hole could set the schedule back further, but for some of the families waiting anxiously above, any delay in the name of safety is worthwhile.

“I prefer a thousand times that the process drags on two more days than to not line the hole,” said María Cortez, the sister-in-law of Mario Gómez, the oldest of the trapped miners. But lining the hole with tons of heavy steel pipes also presents a risk if they slip and fall, officials said.

Medical officials continue to prepare the miners for their moment in the sun. They have been keeping their weight under control so they can fit in the capsule, which is about 21 inches wide and built with suggestions from the NASA team. The men are also receiving media training to answer questions from the hundreds of reporters here at Camp Hope, the makeshift commune here where families have been living since the collapse on Aug. 5.

Elizabeth Segovia, sister of trapped miner Dario Segovia, sits a the camp where relatives wait for the rescue of the miners outside the San Jose mine, Copiapo, Chile.

After the drill breaks through, engineers will send down a camera to evaluate the hole and begin the process of prepping the rescue and capsule teams. But before any of the miners come up, at least two rescuers will be sent down first, to stay in the mine and assist with the capsule.

Then there is the question of who is rescued first. The miners are being divided into three teams, Mr. Golborne said, depending on their physical and mental condition, and on their “skills.”

The first group to come up are likely to be the most talented and healthiest group, who will assist the rescuers at the top with the remainder of the operation. Among those will probably be Edison Peña, a fitness buff who has been running several kilometers a day inside the many winding tunnels still accessible to the trapped miners.

The second group will be the less physically fit, like Mr. Gómez, who has a lung condition and José Ojeda, who has diabetes. And then the rest will follow.

Relatives of one the 33 miners trapped deep underground in a copper and gold mine writte a letter at the Esperanza camp.

The trip in the Phoenix could take as little as 11 to 12 minutes, according to Manuel Montesino, the superintendent for production for Codelco, the state mining company. The miners will be on their feet inside the capsule, with a monitor to check their vital signs and a hands-free phone. Retractable rollers will also help prevent the capsule from hitting the walls of the mine shaft.

Once at the surface, the miners will receive wrap-around sunglass used by mountain climbers and surfers to protect against sudden exposure to the bright sun, and then be treated for first aid on site before being whisked by helicopters to a nearby hospital. Many of the miners have complained of dental pain and skin irritation that will require treatment when they emerge, officials said.

Rescuing the miners has become an obsession for President Sebastián Piñera and his government, which has spared no expense, technological consultation or innovation. Mr. Piñera’s approval rating has risen steadily since the miners were found after more than two weeks during which their fate was uncertain. And Mr. Golborne has become the most popular minister in the Piñera government, a recent opinion poll suggests.

Three efforts were organized to drill holes that could accommodate a rescue capsule. Known as Plans A, B, and C, they proceeded simultaneously. It was Plan B that was on the verge of breaking through to the trapped men on Friday, at a spot more than 2,050 feet below the surface — roughly twice as deep as the Empire State Building is tall.

 But for many family members, with the uncertainty to come, the end still seemed far away.

“We are reaching the final chapter, but it feels like the first day,” Mrs. Cortez said. “We didn’t know if they were dead or alive, when we didn’t know anything and, just like now, we were filled with anxiety, sadness.”

Alexei Barrionuevo reported from the San José Mine, and Henry Fountain from New York. Pascale Bonnefoy contributed from Santiago, Chile.