Chile's president said Monday that his government is "very close" to pulling 33 trapped miners to safety and he hopes to be there in person to see the rescue before leaving on a trip to Europe.
It was Sebastian Pinera who told the miners after they were found alive Aug. 22 that they would be saved by Christmas, and his government has assembled a team of hundreds to support them while three simultaneous drilling operations pound escape shafts through a half-mile of rock.
The drilling has gone well enough to move up the date since then, but rescue leaders have been cautious: Only last week, they estimated a late-October pullout.
Now the president has changed the expected date again, to before his Oct. 15-22 trip.
"We are very close to rescuing them, and I hope to be able to rescue them before leaving for Europe," he told a group of Chilean radio broadcasters Monday. "We are trying to adjust the two schedules."
"For me it is very important to share this moment — not only with the 33 miners, but with their families and all Chileans," Pinera added.
The miners also are getting ready for their big day.
For the last two weeks, they've been sending keepsakes up in the same capsules that carry food, clean clothes, medicine and other supplies down through a narrow borehole to their underground cavern. Letters from their families, signed Chilean flags and other things they don't want to leave behind are coming up out of the hole each day, said Alberto Iturra, the chief of a team of psychologists supporting the miners.
Told of Pinera's statement, rescue chief Andre Sougarret said he understands how anxious everyone is to rescue the men, who on Monday completed 59 days underground since the Aug. 5 collapse of more than 700,000 tons of rock sealed off the lower third of the mine.
"I understand the desire of everyone, me included, is to leave as soon as possible. Still, we can't take any risks," he said.
Setbacks also are expected.
Sougarret announced that the leading T130 "Plan B" rescue drill was delayed for hours Monday to replace one of its hammers, and that the Rig 421 "Plan C" oil well drill went slightly off course in the gold and copper mine. Now the "Plan C" team is recalibrating their drill, slowing its advance. And the "Plan A" drill, which trails the other two, has been stalled since Saturday to change its drill bit.
"As of now we don't have anything new that would enable us to move up the date" from the second half of October, Souggaret said.
Only when the T130 drill has reached the miners, and the team has lowered a video camera to painstakingly examine the walls of the shaft, will the rescue team decide whether to reinforce the shaft with steel tubing. That process could extend the miners' stay for three to 10 more days, but would ensure their safety should the unstable mine shift on their way up.
One of the miners, Mario Sepulveda, turned 40 Monday. Rescuers sang "Happy Birthday" to him by telephone, and sent down 33 little cakes in the "carrier pigeon" capsule that has served as their lifeline.
Also Monday, members of the mine's union protested in a plaza in Copiapo, the regional capital, demanding their pay for the second half of September and any other remaining benefits owed them by the San Esteban mining company.