Image: A drill machine
IVAN ALVARADO  /  Reuters
A drill machine prepares to start work Monday on the top of a hill where 33 miners are trapped underground in a copper and gold mine at Copiapo, some 450 miles north of Santiago.
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updated 8/30/2010 6:08:14 PM ET 2010-08-30T22:08:14

An enormous drill began preliminary work Monday on carving a half-mile chimney through solid rock to free the 33 men trapped in a Chilean mine, their ordeal now having equaled the longest known survival in an underground disaster.

The 31-ton drill bored 50 feet into the rock, the first step in the weeklong digging of a "pilot hole" to guide the way for the rescue. Later the drill will be outfitted with larger bits to expand the hole and pull the men through — a process that could take four months.

The men were trapped Aug. 5 in the San Jose mine in Chile's northern Atacama Desert. Before rescuers dug bore holes to reach them, they survived 17 days without contact with the outside world by rationing a 48-hour supply of food and digging for water in the ground.

Only three miners who survived 25 days trapped in a flooded mine in southern China last year are known to have survived underground as long. Few other rescues have taken more than two weeks.

With Chilean officials saying the men could remain underground for another four months before the rescue hole is completed, the ordeal will be an unprecedented challenge for rescuers, but they have the tools to be successful.

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"The drill operators have the best equipment available internationally," said Dave Feickert, director of KiaOra, a mine safety consulting firm in New Zealand, who has worked extensively with China's government to improve dangerous mines there.

"This doesn't mean it will be easy," he added. "They are likely to run into some technical problems that may slow them down."

In addition, a union leader has expressed concern for the men's livelihoods. San Esteban, the company that operates the mine, has said it has no money to pay their wages and absorb lawsuits, and is not even participating in the rescue. State-run mining company Codelco has taken over.

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Union leader Evelyn Olmos called on the government to pay the workers' wages starting in September, plus cover the roughly 100 other people at the mine who are now out of work and 170 more who work elsewhere for San Esteban. Its license has been suspended by the government.

"We want the government to pay our salaries in full until our comrades are freed and then pay our severances," said Olmos.

Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said the government was prohibited by labor laws from assuming responsibility for the salaries. He said it was up to the mining company and would have to be worked out in Chilean courts.

Golborne noted the extraordinary circumstances of the mine collapse but pointed out there are many other Chileans who lack a job and said the government cannot be responsible for all of them.

Union leaders and others blame the government in part for the San Jose accident because the mine had been cited for safety violations in the past but was allowed to continue operating.

In 2007, executives were charged with involuntary manslaughter in the death of a miner. The worker's family settled and the mine was closed until it could comply with safety rules, said Sen. Baldo Prokurica, who has long called for tougher regulations.

The next year, the mine reopened even though the company apparently had not complied with all the regulations, he said, adding that the circumstances surrounding the reopening are being investigated.

Workers at the current rescue operation are using the three existing bore holes to deliver food, water, air and medicine to the 33 miners, who are trapped about 2,200 feet underground in a shelter large enough to walk around in.

In an eight-minute video released by the government, the second made by the trapped miners, about a dozen of the men send greetings to their families and say they are feeling better since receiving the sustenance and supplies, including special clothes to keep them dry in the hot, humid mine.

The government last week said that five of the miners were suffering from depression, but Golborne said Sunday from the mine site that those men were doing better, had received antidepressants and were getting counseling.

Helping raise their spirits, the men spoke for about three minutes each to a family member on Sunday after a telephone line was lowered down one of the three existing 6-inch bore holes.

The men, while showing courage that has inspired people throughout Chile and the world, could not help but break down when speaking about their loved ones on the latest video.

"I'm sending my greetings to Angelica. I love you so much, darling," said 30-year-old Osman Araya, as his voice choked and he began to cry. "Tell my mother, I love you guys so much. I'll never leave you. I will fight to the end to be with you."

The video showed the men mostly upbeat, joking on camera and talking about their absolute certainty that they would get out alive.

Experts say maintaining high morale among the men is essential. They will play a key role in winning their own rescue: The drilling technique that must be used means that up to 4,000 tons of rock and debris will fall down into a large mine shaft near the shelter — but far enough away from the men that they will not be in any danger.

Officials have said that it is essential the men be at their best physically and mentally because their own work clearing the rocks will be vital to keeping their eventual escape route from becoming plugged.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Gallery: Miner profiles, first moments of freedom

Read about each of the 33 miners as they are rescued.

Photos: Chilean mine collapse

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  1. Carlos Galleguillos and Tabita Galleguillos, relatives of trapped miner Jorge Galleguillos, wait for news outside the San Jose Mine near Copiapo, Chile, on Monday, Oct. 11. The engineer leading Chilean rescue efforts, Andres Sougarett, said Monday his team successfully tested a rescue capsule nearly all the way down to where 33 miners are trapped. (Natacha Pisarenko / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Drill operators Jeff Hart, left, and James Staffel, both U.S. citizens, wave as the drill that made the hole reaching the miners is transported away from the mine on Monday. (Jorge Saenz / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Surrounded by media crews, onlookers and mine staff, the main rescue drill leaves the mine on Monday. (Ariel Marinkovic / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Rescuers test a capsule similiar to the one that will be used to recover the trapped miners at the San Jose mine near Copiapo, Chile, on Sunday, Oct. 10. (Hugo Infante / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A relative of one of the miners is hugged by a policeman after the drilling machine completed an escape hole at the mine on Oct. 9. (Ivan Alvarado / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Workers of the T-130 drill celebrate in the arid Atacama desert on Oct. 9. The crew drilling with the T-130 drill, part of an effort dubbed "Plan B" - one of three shafts attempting to reach 33 miners trapped deep underground - finally made contact with the miners' shelter. (Francesco Degasperi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A clown named Rolly shows a flag that was sent by the 33 trapped miners as a gift at the camp where relatives wait for news outside the San Jose mine in Copiapo, Chile, on Wednesday, Oct. 6. The words on the flag read in Spanish, "A souvenir for clown Rolly, from the San Jose mine, thanks for making our children laugh." Thirty-three miners have been trapped deep underground in the copper and gold mine since it collapsed on Aug. 5. (Natacha Pisarenko / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A helmet sits on a rock covered with the names of the 33 miners trapped in the collapsed San Jose mine. (Natacha Pisarenko / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Aurelia Navarro, a volunteer missionary, prays on Oct. 5 during a small ceremony marking the 60 days since miners became trapped. (Dario Lopez-mills / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A relative of one of the trapped miners writes a message on a Chilean national flag on Oct. 4. (Martin Bernetti / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A team tests a possible rescue capsule designed by the Chilean Army's Shipyards on Sept. 30. (Ariel Marinkovic / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Workers on Sept. 30 test a capsule that will be used to rescue trapped miners. (Chile's Presidency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A worker checks part of a drill pulled from Rigg 421 on Sept. 24 at the San Jose mine near Copiapo, Chile, where 33 miners remain trapped. (Ivan Alvarado / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Children play Oct. 2 as a worker hangs a sign identifying a module to be used as school room for relatives of the trapped Chilean miners trapped. Many of the families of the miners are living in what is called "Camp Esperanza" or "Camp Hope." (Ariel Marinkovic / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Relatives of the trapped miners watch a video of them at the San Jose mine on Saturday, Sept. 18. (Aliosha Marquez A / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A crane lifts a capsule that will be used as part of rescue operation for the miners at the San Jose copper and gold mine on Saturday, Sept. 25. (Ivan Alvarado / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Nelly Bugueno, mother of trapped miner Victor Zamora, checks her cell phone as she walks past the tents where families of the 33 trapped miners are living as they await rescue on Friday. (Stringer/chile / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Jesica Cortez, wife of Victor Zamora, one of the 33 miners trapped down in the shaft, rejoices as she reads a letter from her husband, at San Jose mine, near Copiapo, 800 km north of Santiago, on Wednesday, Sept. 18. (Martin Bernetti / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Relatives of trapped miners Claudio Yanez and Dario Segovia write a message to them with painted stones outside the San Jose mine in Copiapo, Chile, Thursday, Sept. 23. (Photographer: Aliosha Marquez A / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Members of a folkloric ballet perform at the camp where relatives of trapped miners wait for news outside the San Jose mine in Copiapo, Chile, Wednesday Sept. 1. Thirty-three miners have been trapped alive deep underground in the copper and gold mine since it collapsed on Aug. 5. (Roberto Candia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A composite image captured from a video on Tuesday, Sept. 1 shows four of 33 trapped miners waving at mine San Jose, near of Copiapo, Chile. (Codelco / Handout / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A sample of what it will be the first hot meal the miners still trapped in the San Jose Mine will have since the accident, Tuesday, Sept. 1 near Copiapo, Chile. (Ariel Marinkovic / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Evangelic Minister Javier Soto dedicates one of the 33 mini-bibles that will be given to the miners trapped in the San Jose mine, Monday. (Ariel Marinkovic / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. View of 33 Chilean national flags placed outside the San Jose mine by the relatives of the 33 trapped miners in Copiapo, 800 km north of Santiago on Monday. (Ariel Marinkovic / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A worker checks the drill machine digging an escape hole for the 33 miners trapped underground in a copper and gold mine at Copiapo, north of Santiago, Chile, on Monday, Aug. 30. (Ivan Alvarado / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Work to rescue the trapped miners continues on Aug. 30 at the mine, which is located 450 miles north of Santiago. (Ivan Alvarado / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Samuel Avalo, left, and his wife Herminda Acuna, parents of Samuel Avalo Acuna, one of the trapped miners, sit outside the San Jose mine in Copiapo, on Aug. 30. (Roberto Candia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Relatives of miners carry candles during a vigil outside the mine on Sunday, Aug. 29. (Roberto Candia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Trapped miners wave at a camera from underground on Aug. 29. (Ivan Alvarado / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Chilean pianist Roberto Bravo performs during a show for the relatives of the trapped miners in Copiapo on Aug. 29. (Ariel Marinkovic / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Relatives of those trapped underground in a copper and gold mine gather around a screen showing the miners inside the mine at Copiapo, north of Santiago, Chile, on Thursday, Aug. 26. (Ivan Alvarado / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Marion Gallardo, the granddaughter of trapped miner Mario Gomez, writes a letter to her grandfather on Wednesday, Aug. 25. The 33 miners trapped in the San Esteban gold and copper mine in Copiapo, north of Santiago, since Aug. 5 say they are "enduring hell" underground, putting urgency into the rescue operation. (Ariel Marinkovic / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. A combined photo shows the 33 miners trapped in the mine in Copiapo, Chile. (Diario Atacama / Handout / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Elias Sepulveda and her cousin Katherine embrace in front of a tribute to their relatives, Esteban Rojas and Pablo Rojas, two of the miners trapped in the collapsed mine. (Roberto Candia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. An officer stands in front of the machine that will be used to rescue the miners. The miners were trapped when the shaft they were working in collapsed. (Claudio Reyes / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Relatives of the trapped miners wave to rescue workers outside the collapsed mine. Rescue teams bored a small hole down more than 2,000 feet and used a video camera to confirm the miners were alive on Aug. 22. (Roberto Candia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Florencio Avalos, one of the trapped miners, is seen Aug. 23 in an image from video. The camera was lowered more than 2,000 feet into the copper and gold mine. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Lilianette Ramirez, wife of trapped miner Mario Gomez, holds a letter from her husband outside the mine on Aug. 23. (Ivan Alvarado / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Relatives of trapped miners embrace after learning that the 33 miners were found alive Aug. 22. (Stringer/chile / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Chilean workers operate a drilling machine at the San Esteban gold and copper mine on Aug. 17. (Ariel Marinkovic / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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