Ordeal nearly over as drill finally breaks through to trapped miners
THE most able miners will get out first. Then the sick ones. Last will be those considered the strongest mentally and physically, who can be left behind in the subterranean cavern where they have been trapped for months.
As drillers came near to completing the tunnel that will provide an escape route for the 33 men, trapped half a mile down a remote Chilean mine, rescue workers finalised arrangements that they hope will bring the miners to safety.
Laurence Golborne, the country's mining minister, announced that "Plan B" -- one of three powerful drills working to free the miners -- had advanced to just 89 metres away from the cavern.
The men have been trapped since a rockfall on August 5 blocked their exit from the San Jose gold and copper mine near the northern city of Copiapo.
The drill was expected to have reached the cavern by dawn today, at which point the rescue team will begin evaluating whether the escape tunnel ought to be lined to make it more safe. The shaft will be examined using a video camera. That, and other technical operations, which should take between two and 10 days, must be completed before the rescue can begin.
"We expect to break through to them around Saturday," Mr Golborne said.
"The rescue process will take a few days. If we do not case the hole, we may have to wait for two, or three, or four days. If we have to start installing the casing, it may take between eight to 10 days, depending on how the installation of the crane and rescue systems proceeds."
Officials from the Chilean navy, which has built the steel escape pod expected to carry the 33 men up their 26in-wide escape tunnel, told reporters at the remote desert mine how the final stages of the rescue operation would be organised.
Before anyone can be sent to the surface, 16 men will join the miners in the cavern where they have been for 65 days. Their job will be to check on the workers' physical condition and to ensure they know how to use the rescue capsule safely in the 15 minutes it is expected to take to reach the surface. The 16 men will include 13 engineers and rescuers from the state mining company, Codelco, and three naval special forces paramedics, who will work in shifts. The paramedics will evaluate each of the men and can change the all-important list which suggests the order in which they will be brought to the surface.
Commander Renato Navarro, the navy's submarine chief, said the list was based on daily examinations of the trapped miners' physical and mental health, and strength of character, which have been carried out via video and audio links since contact was first made with them on 22 August.
Since the first miner rescued will inevitably achieve huge international celebrity, he should also be able to cope with the pressures of fame.
"The most able miners will leave first: those who can better describe to the next how they might avoid the potential problems that the capsule might encounter," said Commander Navarro. Then those with illnesses or who suffer from one problem or another. And finally the last to surface are the strongest physically or in terms of character." Speculation is growing that the first up will be Edison Pena, an amateur athlete who said he has been running 10km (6.2 miles) a day in the mine's tunnels.
Candidates for the tough job of being left behind until the bitter end include Jose Henriquez. But many people believe the last up will be the shift supervisor Luis Urzua, whose disciplined leadership was credited with keeping the men alive on emergency food supplies during their first 17 days, without contact from the outside world.
"It could be Urzua, but it is still not confirmed. The concept of a captain being the last one to abandon ship could be applied," said Commander Navarro.
"He is going to prefer his team leaves ahead of him," said Robinson Marquez, a neighbour and former co-worker of Mr Urzua, who described him as extremely patient and calm.
When the last trapped miner goes up the shaft, two men will be left behind, then one. Commander Navarro said it would probably be a paramedic, since they were trained to handle their own medical emergencies, should one arise. (© Independent News Service, London)