Drill breaks through to trapped Chilean miners

Image: Relatives of the trapped miners celebrat
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.ARIEL MARINKOVIC / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: msnbc.com news services

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.

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.

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.

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)."