Oct. 9, 2010— -- For the Chilean miners who have been trapped half a mile under the ground for the last two months, there is literally light at the end of the tunnel.
On Saturday a rescue drill reached the underground chamber where the 33 miners have been entombed since August 5. A siren rang at "Camp Hope," the tent camp outside the mine, signifying the drill's breakthrough, which prompted celebration of the families who had been holding vigil, according to The Associated Press.
The so-called Plan B Schramm T-130 drill carved a hole wide enough for an escape capsule to pull the miners out; the men could be hoisted to freedom as early as Tuesday.
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Before the final phase of the rescue can begin, engineers will use a camera to check the 26"-wide shaft for loose rocks that could tumble on the miners. That's why they expect to line at least some of the 2,000-foot shaft with ½" steel casing.
"The casing process is not without risks," said Chile's Minister of Mines, Laurence Golborne. "I mean, you have a 700 meter hole with pipes that weigh 150 tons... If you don't do it in a proper way, you can lose one of the parts or casings, and that could be a tremendous disaster, too."
Golborne said the installation of the steel piping will be checked using X-rays.
"We can start the rescue process in plus three or plus ten days," Golborne said. "We haven't decided yet."
Once the rescue begins, a paramedic and rescue coordinator will then be lowered into the hole, and the men will pulled out one by one, according to an exit list. When the men reach the surface, they will have to wear sunglasses to protect their eyesight from the glare of daylight.
The miners will ride to the surface in narrow, 21-inch wide capsule, barely larger than an 18-inch NBA basketball hoop. Several have been put on special diets to make sure they can squeeze in.
First up will be several skilled men who will ride to the surface to make sure the system works. There is an escape hatch at the bottom of the capsule if it gets stuck. Once officials are confident the system is working, the most vulnerable men will ascend, there is a diabetic, there are several elderly men and some who have grown weak and sick in the brutal underground conditions, with 90-degree heat and 90 percent humidity. Healthier men will be pulled out last..
Rescue of Chilean Miners Proceeds Faster Than Expected
When the disaster began, mining officials thought a rescue wouldn't be possible until December, but drilling has proceeded faster than expected, giving hope to the families waiting eagerly for their loved ones' return.
"We are calm. We've already held on for two months. Now we are in the closing stage," Samuel Avalos, father of one of the trapped miners, told Reuters.
The miners' ordeal has riveted people around the globe. Nearly 800 journalists have traveled to the isolated desert hillside to witness the rescue, and both Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and Bolivian President Evo Morales plan to there to greet the miners when they are finally pulled to safety.
ABC's Jeffrey Kofman contributed to this report. The Associated Press and Reuters provided additional information.