The steel capsule designed to rescue 33 men deep in a Chilean mine was tested today, and it went so well that engineers said the capsule would be sent back into the earth to make its first rescue at midnight Tuesday and perhaps even earlier.
A source close to the rescue told ABC News that the men could be out in just 12 hours once the operation gets underway.
The miners' families are counting the final hours. Liliana Ramirez, the wife of Mario Gomez, the oldest miner, said that she is anxious, but happy too. She said that she is "happy that this nightmare is coming to an end."
The men, excited to see their loved ones, want to look their best. They've asked for shampoo and shoe polish. The men who have endured misery few can imagine want to look presentable to their families after waiting so long see them and wondering if they would ever see them again.
As the miners and their families count down the hours, every hour now brings news, but none more important than the word that test of the capsule went without a hitch.
Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said, "This test has been very successful...we are pretty sure that the cage will behave properly as it has been designed during the rescue process. We already saw that there was no movement inside the cage."
When The Rescue Begins
The capsule leaves nothing to chance. A man riding inside will wear an oxygen mask, his heartbeat and body temperature will be monitored, and he will wear a telephone headset to talk with the rescue team above.
Every second of the miners' ascent will be monitored by video camera. They will be pulled up one by one for the 2,000-foo ride that is expected to take just 15 minutes.
Before the rescue begins, a paramedic and rescue coordinator will be lowered into the hole to coordinate the evacuation. Then the men will loaded into the capsule, called Phoenix, one by one. An order has already been established. The most skilled will go first, to test it and report problems. Once it's certain the capsule is operating smoothly, the ten sickest men will be lifted. And finally the healthiest will brought to the surface. It's expected that the last man up will be Luis Urzua, the man who was shift foreman when the collapse occurred and has shown inspiring leadership throughout the ordeal.
When the men reach the surface, they will have to wear sunglasses to protect their eyesight from the glare of daylight. For now, they are taking aspirin because of concerns about blood clotting in the cramped capsule. Hours before the evacuation, they will be put on a liquid diet to cut down on nausea.
Ringing of Bell Announces Breakthrough of Drill
The miners have been trapped almost a half mile underground since August 5. Getting them out has been an epic struggle, the most technologically challenging mine rescue ever attempted.
Three drills using three different technologies raced to finish a rescue shaft. This weekend it happened.
The so called Plan B drill, an American-made Schramm T-130 water will borer, broke through to the men early Saturday.
Drill operator Jeff Hart was brought in from Afghanistan to help in the rescue effort.
Hart said the area where the mine was located is one of the toughest terrains to drill and the crews took extra care to ensure safety of both the rescuers and the miners.
"You take a more personal approach to it," he said.
A bell announced the breakthrough to the miners' families at the makeshift camp outside the mine gates. What followed was a spontaneous celebration, but it will no doubt be dwarfed by the celebration that will follow the rescue of all 33 men.
When the disaster began, mining officials thought that rescue wouldn't be possible until December. Drilling has proceeded faster than expected, giving hope to the families waiting eagerly for their loved ones' return.
Now, for the final critical moments, the engineers and officials overseeing the rescue have tried to take every precaution possible.
In anticipation of that moment, engineers lined the top 300 feet of the shaft overnight with steel casing because of concerns about loose rocks falling on the rescue capsule.
Miners in Good Spirits
If something goes wrong during the 2,000-foot journey to the surface, there is an escape system that allows the miner to separate the capsule so that he can be lowered back to the mine.
While some of the miners have serious medical issues such as skin disease, fungal infections and lung problems as a result of the stifling heat and humidity of the mine, officials said, all are in remarkably good spirits.
"We began to talk to them about the proper order of rescue and they were fighting against us yesterday because every one of them wanted to be at the end of the line, not at the beginning," Chilean Minister of Health Jaime Manalich said Sunday.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.