Escape shaft reaches trapped miners
But workers must still wait until at least November for freedom
Rescuers working to release 33 trapped Chilean miners made a pivotal breakthrough last night as the escape shaft they are drilling reached the underground chamber occupied by the men.
However, it will still be at least November before the miners are brought to the surface.
Ximena Matas, the regional governor, said the first potential escape tunnel had reached the mine area near the chamber where the men sheltered after the collapse last month.
The news came on the eve of Chile's bicentenary, when the rescue mission is expected to be the centrepiece of muted national celebrations.
The miners must now wait until at least early November before the 2,067ft shaft can be widened and strengthened enough to enable a rescue capsule to bring them one by one to the surface at the San Jose mine in the Atacama Desert.
Even then, the ordeal won't be over. Nasa experts advising the rescuers have warned the greatest challenge will be when the men surface and have to cope with the psychological effects of their ordeal.
"Like astronauts, these men have endured a prolonged period in a small enclosure away from their normal atmosphere but in the miners' case they haven't the exhaustive training and preparation," said Dr James Polk, the US agency's chief of space medicine.
"They are going to have a lot of things thrust at them when they get out; a lot of press attention, dealing with family issues and such things thrust upon them very immediately."
He predicted that it could take at least twice the length of time they had been trapped to recover from the ordeal.
Before then the miners must spend much of their time assisting the rescuers. The group will be engaged in shifting 4,000 tonnes of rock and rubble that will fall into their refuge during the widening of the shaft.
Three small tunnels currently provide food, medicine and air to the men. (© Daily Telegraph, London)