Image: Relatives of the trapped miners celebrate
ARIEL MARINKOVIC  /  AFP - Getty Images
Relatives of the trapped miners celebrate after one of the drills working to rescue the 33 finally reached their shelter in the San Jose mine, near Copiapo, Chile, Saturday.
msnbc.com news services
updated 10/9/2010 7:53:44 PM ET 2010-10-09T23:53:44

Sixty-six agonizing days after their gold and copper mine collapsed above them, 33 miners were offered a way out Saturday as a drill broke through to their underground purgatory.

The first miners may be pulled out Wednesday, Chile's mine minister said.

Champagne sprayed and hard hats tumbled off heads as rescue workers pressed close to the drill, hugging each other and shouting for joy. Down in "Camp Hope," where the miners' relatives waited, people waved flags and cried as one man energetically rang a brass bell even before the siren sounded confirming the escape shaft had reached the miners.

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The men are still several days away from efforts to bring them to the surface: The rescue team has decided to reinforce less than 315 feet (96 meters) of the rescue shaft in steel pipe.

The rest of the escape shaft is exposed rock, and the rescue team has decided it's strong enough to provide for a smooth ride for the miners' escape capsule.

Mining Minister Laurence Golborne set the date after the shaft was inspected with a video camera Saturday.

Golborne and other government officials have insisted that the decision on whether to reinforce the whole shaft would be purely technical, based on the evidence and the expertise of a team of eight geologists and mining engineers.

But the political consequences are inescapable. While engineers have said there is only a remote chance of something going wrong if the shaft remains unreinforced, Chile's success story would evaporate if a miner was to get fatally stuck for reasons that might have been avoided.

Reinforcing just the top of the shaft is a compromise that will protect the miners as their capsule passes through a curved section where the rock is fractured. It's also more technically feasible.

Golborne said work was beginning immediately to weld the pipes together.

Families expressed joy at the breakthrough Saturday.

"We feel an enormous happiness, now that I'm going to have my brother," said Darwin Contreras, whose brother Pedro, a 26-year-old heavy machine operator, is stuck down below. "When the siren rang out, it was overwhelming. Now we just have to wait for them to get out, just a little bit longer now."

The "Plan B" drill won a three-way race against two other drills to carve a hole wide enough for an escape capsule to pull the miners out one by one.

"Our nervousness is gone now," said Juan Sanchez, whose son Jimmy is stuck in the mine. "Only now can we begin to smile."

"I'm so happy, I'm going to have my son back!" cried Alicia Campos, whose son Daniel Herrera is among the trapped.

While "Plan A" and "Plan C" stalled after repeatedly veering off course, the "Plan B" drill reached the miners at a point 2,041 feet below the surface at 8:05 a.m. local time, after 33 days of drilling.

It will still take days to winch them to the surface one at a time in special capsules just wider than a man's shoulders, in one of the most complex rescue attempts in mining history.

The miners themselves must also conduct a controlled explosion down in the mine to make sure there is room for the escape capsules to emerge below.

'Still haven't rescued anybody'
"This is an important achievement," Golborne said of the breakthrough. "But we still haven't rescued anybody... This rescue won't be over until the last person below leaves this mine."

The milestone thrilled Chileans, who have come to see the rescue drama as a test of the nation's character and pride, and eased some anxiety among the miners' families.

Video: 'I'm hearing it right now ... they've made it'

But now comes a difficult judgment call: The rescue team must decide whether it's more risky to pull the miners through unreinforced rock, or to insert tons of heavy steel pipe into the curved shaft to protect the miners on their way up.

President Sebastian Pinera reminded Chileans Friday that he had promised "to do everything humanly possible" to keep the miners safe.

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Steel pipe would prevent stones from falling and potentially jamming the capsule, but it wouldn't save a miner if the unstable mine suffers another major collapse, and might itself provoke a disastrous setback, Golborne said.

"You would have to put though a 600-meter hole a lot of pipes that weigh more than 150 tons," he warned. "And this structure can be set in a position that also could block the movement of the Phoenix (escape capsule). It's not an decision easy to make."

Rescuers plan to start pulling the men out one by one in a made-for-TV spectacle that has captivated the world.

The miners will be initially examined at a field hospital where they can briefly reunited with up to three close relatives. Then, they'll be flown by helicopter in small groups to the regional hospital in Copiapo, were a wing of 33 fresh beds await to care for them for no fewer than 48 hours. Only after their physical and mental health is thoroughly examined will they be allowed to go home.

The wives of some miners have been having their hair done in one of the tents set up as a makeshift hairdressers, as they prepare to be reunited with their husbands.

Some of the men have sent keepsakes like letters, crucifixes and clothes sent down to them in tubes back to the surface from the tunnel they called "hell."

President Sebastian Pinera's wife, Cecilia Morel, has traveled to the mine to help lend psychological support to the miners' relatives.

"Don't let's set our hearts on an exact evacuation date, let's trust the experts," Morel told relatives of the miners overnight. "It's like waiting for a birth. It seems the mountain has started to dilate, but the dilation is two centimeters (under an inch)."

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: 'Overwhelming feeling,' says rescuer

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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Timeline: Planning the rescue

Explainer: Trapped: What it's like inside mine

  • Image: Mine where miners trapped
    Martin Bernetti  /  AFP - Getty Images
    Thirty-three miners are trapped in this mine in Copiapo, Chile.

    What is it like to be trapped underground for weeks, if not months? That's the prospect faced by 33 men discovered alive on Sunday, 17 days after the Chilean mine they were working in collapsed. Their initial shelter was just 530 square feet — the size of some studio apartments — but they have since spread out into a tunnel.

    Due to the danger of drilling close to the miners, it could take up to four months to reach them — raising the question of how the trapped men will cope. Below are some perspectives from mine safety experts, two Australian miners who in 2006 survived being trapped for two weeks and one of the trapped Chilean miners who was able to get a note out to his wife.

  • Mental health

    "We need to urgently establish what psychological situation" the miners are in, Chilean Health Minister Jaime Manalich said Monday in announcing the arrival of doctors and psychiatrists. They "need to understand what we know up here at the surface, that it will take many weeks for them to reach the light."

    Key to their well-being will be to keep them busy and well-supported, Manalich said. "There has to be leadership established, and to support them and prepare them for what's coming, which is no small thing."

    Kathleen Kowalski Trakofler, a research psychologist at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, says that while research in this area is limited, there may be some general behavioral responses.

    "Over time, individuals are likely to feel crowded, sleep-deprived, irritable, bored, and restless," she says. "Other noxious stimuli include loss of privacy while toileting, odors ...  as well as absence or presence of noise by any operating machinery or life support systems. Low levels or lack of lighting provides no normal cycling of light to trigger the body’s natural circadian rhythms."

    "Common symptoms," she adds, "include anxiety, withdrawal, aggression, hostility, depression and irrational and impulsive behavior."

    Australian Todd Russell has first-hand experience coping in such a situation. In 2006 he and a fellow miner survived two weeks trapped in a safety cage 3,000 feet below the surface. The two were feared dead until a thermal imaging camera spotted them five days after they were trapped. A third miner died.

    Russell told London's The Guardian newspaper that he and fellow miner Brant Webb "hoped that what they did on the outside wouldn't kill us. We knew that the guys were working their way towards us. We could hear everything that was happening outside us and we could hear the underground machinery operating."

    "Brant and I relied on each other's strengths," he added. "We made up stories and sang songs just to take our mind off things and tried to put our minds into a positive state."

    "We also cried," he told the BBC World Service.

    A big concern is that over time the "euphoria" of being found will give way to the miners starting to say, "OK boys, let's get this thing over with," says Davitt McAteer, who was assistant secretary for mine safety and health at the U.S. Labor Department under President Bill Clinton.

  • Physical health

    A narrow shaft is being used to deliver food and medication to the miners, and is allowing communication with relatives via microphones and letters.

    But health officials are worried about the heat below and loss of body weight among the men. A TV camera lowered down the bore-hole showed that some miners had removed their shirts because of the heat and lack of air.

    In a radio communication with Chile's mining minister Monday, the miners said "they had eyes irritated by the dust, that they needed tooth brushes, and that one of them had a stomach ache."

    Officials fear the miners might have already lost up to 20 pounds each, and Chile's Health Ministry is asking NASA, due to its experience with astronauts in remote and reduced quarters, for advice on what kind of nutrition to provide.

    Russell told the BBC that "it's amazing what your body can do. ... We survived on hope and courage, and each other, (and) we were lucky enough to have a bit of underground mine water."

  • Living conditions

    The miners so far have used the batteries of two trucks to power lights and charge their helmet lamps. Those details came from miner Mario Gomez, who scrawled notes on paper and tied it to the drill probe after it broke through their chamber.

    Gomez, 63, said the men also had used a backhoe to get underground water.

    It was unclear whether their air supply was in danger of running out.

    Russell, the Australian miner, described to The Guardian how he and his partner survived. "We were stuck ... in a small pocket of air. We couldn't stand up or even sit up. We had to lie down on our backs. If one of us was on our back, the other had to lie on his side for 14 days. We were tossing and turning on sharp rocks and being cut to pieces. We were really worried about the cuts getting infected.

    "We had no food or water for the first six days. ... We had to urinate into our helmets so we could collect something to drink."

    "It was also very hot and humid down there but, because of the flow-through of air from fans that were blowing through into the level we were on, we were also suffering from hypothermia (because of the cold air blowing on our sweat). We had to cuddle each other to keep our body cores warm."

  • Passing the time

    Chilean officials expect the rescue to take up to four months. "Miners have been rescued after over three weeks ... but four months would be a record," said Dave Feickert, an internationally recognized consultant on mine safety issues. "The psychology of such a situation is therefore not well known, but this group appears to have good leadership and they seem physically well."

    Two key factors are likely to be heat stress and how the miners organize themselves, he said. "They will need to stay active and organize each day to try to mimic their normal lives. Communication (including video links) with the rescue team and their families will be very important."

    "Generally speaking, miners survive underground on a daily basis because they know how to work in teams and are trained and experienced," said Feickert. "If the conditions are tolerable, they could become a bit like the crew of a nuclear sub, living under the ocean for months."

    Webb, the Australian miner, told the Sydney Morning Herald that contact with relatives was crucial. "The mental rollercoaster they are on is huge and without getting reassurance, without getting words from your loved ones, your mental and physical state goes downhill," he said.

    McAteer urged officials to keep the miners busy — not just communicating with relatives  but also providing videos and even computer games.

    Gomez, the trapped miner, addressed part of his letter to his wife, saying that "even if we have to wait months to communicate ... I want to tell everyone that I'm good and we'll surely come out OK."

    "Patience and faith," he wrote. "God is great and the help of my God is going to make it possible to leave this mine alive."

    Gomez's wife told reporters she looked forward to exchanging letters with her husband.

    "Can you imagine? After 30 years of marriage we will start sending each other love letters again," she said, giggling despite being exhausted after camping out in a plastic tent near the mine.

  • Advice to miners

    "We were never confident that they were going to get us out alive. We just had to rely on each other and keep positive," Russell told The Guardian. "That's probably the best thing those miners in Chile can do to keep themselves alive. They should think of their families and loved ones and rely on their mates around them to get them through."

    What about after a rescue? "I personally don't think the miners in Chile will recover from this," Russell said. "We will never recover from our experience either. ... You've always got the constant memory with you for the whole of your life. It's going to be very hard for those guys and also their families because the families don't know from day to day whether their loved ones are going to survive the four months or whether they're going to perish where they are."

    Webb predicted the miners "will come out very united, they will have really good friendships forever and a day, but they are going to be different men.''

    ''To be trapped is a different world," he added. "When I got out of the hole I ran around trying to let all my mates' birds out, rabbits and guinea pigs. 'Don't trap them,' I said. 'These blokes will go through the same thing where they won't like seeing zoos, trapped animals, cages — you get a different perspective on the world.''

    Kowalski Trakofler, the research psychologist, says a dramatic change is not unlikely. "For people who are directly exposed to a disaster, acute post-traumatic reactions are not unusual and would tend to emerge early on," she says. "These reactions can include hyper-vigilance, difficulty sleeping and nightmares, feelings of anxiety, event-specific fears, anger or rage, and vulnerability.  In a review and study of behavior associated with underground coal mine fires, NIOSH researchers found similar response symptoms. Recovery can be rapid for most, slower for others or, for some, may not occur at all."

  • Advice to rescuers

    The strategy being used is to drill a tunnel through solid rock that's wide enough for the men to escape through.

    "This rescue technique was used at the Quecreek mine accident in the U.S. in 2002, but there the men were rescued after a few days," Feickert notes. "The problems they will have in Chile include the depth of the chamber where the men are and the instability of ground. So the rescuers need to be careful in ensuring the integrity of the rescue shaft, through which a cylinder holding one man at a time must pass."

    McAteer is hopeful that since the mine is hardrock it's less likely to rumble as the drill comes through. On the other hand, he says, "you don't want to create any more problems than already exist."

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