Rescuers on Monday finished reinforcing the hole drilled to bring 33 trapped miners to safety and sent a rescue capsule nearly all the way to where the men are trapped, proving the escape route works.
That means that if all goes well, everything will be in place at midnight Tuesday to begin pulling the men out of their subterranean purgatory.
Andre Sougarett, the rescue leader, said the empty capsule descended 2,000 feet (610 meters), just 40 feet (12 meters) short of the shaft system where the miners have been trapped since an Aug. 5 collapse.
“We didn’t send it (all the way) down because we could risk that someone will jump in,” Mining Minister Laurence Golborne told reporters, grinning.
He called the 6 a.m. test “very promising, very positive” and said the capsule, the biggest of three built by Chilean Navy engineers, “performed very well in the duct.”
“It didn’t even raise any dust,” he said.
The steel capsule, named Phoenix I, was lowered by winch into the hole after its top 180 feet (55 meters) were encased in tubing, said Sougarett.
His deputy, Rene Aguilar, told The Associated Press it was lowered at least four times.
Engineers had originally planned to extend the 28-inch (71-centimeter) section of pipe nearly twice as far, but decided to stop for fear that a longer tube forced into the slightly angled hole risked damaging its smooth walls.
A torrent of emotions awaits the miners when they finally rejoin the outside world.
As trying as it has been for them to survive underground for more than two months, their gold and copper mine is familiar territory. Once out of the shaft, they’ll face challenges so bewildering, no amount of coaching can.
They’ll be celebrated at first, embraced by their families and pursued by more than 750 journalists who have converged on the mine, competing for interviews and images to feed to a world intensely curious to hear their survival story.
They’ve been invited to visit presidential palaces, take all-expense paid vacations and appear on countless TV shows.
Contracts for book and movie deals are pending, along with job offers. More money than they could dream of is already awaiting their signature.
But eventually, a new reality will set in — and for most, it won’t be anything like the life they knew before the mine collapsed above their heads.
“Before being heroes, they are victims,” University of Santiago psychologist Sergio Gonzalez told The Associated Press. “These people who are coming out of the bottom of the mine are different people … and their families are too.”
Officials have drawn up a tentative but secret list of which miners should come out first, but that order could change after a paramedics and mining expert are sent down to evaluate the men and oversee the journey upward.
The last out is expected to be Luiz Urzua, who was the shift chief when the men became entombed, several family members of miners told the AP, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to upset government officials.
One by one, the men will take a twisting, 20-minute ride for 2,041 feet (622 meters) up to a rock-strewn desert moonscape and into the embrace of those they love.
It should take about an hour for the rescue capsule to make a round trip, Aguilar told The Associated Press.
Goldborne said all would be ready by 12:01 a.m. Wednesday because “we have to wait for the concrete to set” around the steel tubing.
The emotional roller-coaster ride of those awaiting the miners on the surface of the coastal Atacama desert was as bumpy as ever.
Hearing that the tunnel is nearly ready “is a sensation of joy mixed with a lot of anxiety,” said Maria Segovia. Her 48-year-old brother Dario is among those trapped.
When he’s finally out, she said, “I’ll tell him I love him, that I’m very proud of you. And then I’ll kick his backside” so he never goes into a mine again, she said smiling.
Chile’s government has promised each miner at least six months of psychological support.
“All of them will have to confront the media and fame, and will encounter families that aren’t the same as when they were trapped,” Health Minister Jaime Manalich said. “All of them will live through very difficult situations of adaptation.”
At first they’ll feel besieged, poorly treated by the media and perhaps overwhelmed by even the attention of their own families, predicted Dr. Claus Behn, a University of Chile physiologist with expertise on disorders stemming from surviving extreme situations. Society will “demand to know every minute detail, and they’re going to offer enormous quantities of money and popularity.”
The miners have had the support of a team of psychologists while underground, but that was designed mostly to help them endure the extreme conditions.
Last week, they also got an hour a day of training in dealing with the media, including practice with “ugly, bad and indiscreet” questions about their time underground, their personal lives and their families, said Alejandro Pino, a former reporter who was part of a support team provided by Chile’s workplace insurance association.
“I see them doing extraordinarily well,” Pino said. “They’re ready.”
The miners do seem happy in videos they filmed and sent to the surface. Some even joked around as they showed off their underground home.
But others have avoided the exposure. And while Manalich insists that the miners are unified, reflecting the disciplined teamwork that helped them survive, all that could change quickly once they are out.
Already, relations within and between their families have become strained as some seem to be getting more money and attention than others.
A philanthropic Chilean mining executive, Leonardo Farkas, gave $10,000 checks in the miners’ names to each of the 33 families, and set up a fund to collect donations. Co-workers who weren’t trapped, but were left out of a job — including some who narrowly escaped getting crushed in the collapse — wonder if they’ll be taken care of, too.
One miner’s child was invited onto a Chilean TV game show where she earned thousands of dollars, and 27 of the 33 workers have filed a $10 million negligence lawsuit against the mine’s owners. A similar suit against government regulators is planned. And then there are deals for books, movies and personal appearances.
The money rush will be intense — and temporary. The government required each miner to designate someone to receive their $1,600 monthly salary, and opened bank accounts for them that only the miners themselves can access. But Behn said the miners need good financial advice as well so that it doesn’t melt away.
“If they’re getting now a violent inflow of money, it should be administered so that it can serve them for the rest of their lives. And meanwhile, they should not for any reason give up their regular work habits,” Behn said.
What often happens after situations of extreme isolation is that the survivor tells everything all at once, and when there’s nothing left to say, misunderstandings begin.
Manalich said the miners seem incredibly unified.
Brandon Fisher doubts that will last.
Fisher, president of Center Rock, Inc., has been closely involved in this rescue — his company’s drill hammers pounded the escape shaft.
His hammers also helped save nine men in Pennsylvania in the Quecreek Mine disaster in 2002. They, too, came out of the hole blinking in the glare of TV cameras, and received intense media attention at first. But in some cases, their friendships and family relationships didn’t hold up to the pressure.
“They’re in for the surprise of their lives. From here on out, their lives will have changed,” Fisher predicted. “There aren’t too many of those guys who get along because of all the attention, the lawsuits, the movie deals. Once money gets involved it gets ugly.”
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)