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Rescue workers finished shoring up the initial section of an escape tunnel to rescue 33 miners trapped in northern Chile and began dry runs ahead of the scheduled launch of the operation after midnight on Tuesday.
Engineers lined the first 54.5 metres of the tunnel with giant metal tubes, just over half the stretch they had initially planned to case, after hitting a curve which would have risked shattering the pipe. The metal lining is designed to shore up fragile rock at the start of the tunnel and prevent the rescue capsule in which the men will be hauled out from getting stuck.
Engineers then sent a “Phoenix” – one of three high-tech rescue capsules specially designed for the rescue – to a depth of 610 metres, just 12 metres short of the bottom of the tunnel, weighted down with 84 kilos to simulate the weight of a miner.
“We didn’t send it down the last 10 metres – we couldn’t risk someone jumping in,” joked Laurence Golborne, the mining minister.
If the Phoenix runs into problems, the lower section can be released and the miner inside would travel gently back down, but Mr Golborne said the tests were filmed and no hitches encountered. The third Phoenix, which is not expected to be used, is shorter and slimmer in case of any problems.
The rescue will start “at zero hours on Wednesday”, Mr Golborne said, though he acknowledged that if the cement around the winch system had dried properly, the 48-hour operation could start earlier. “If we could bring it forward that would be marvellous . . . If the safety conditions are there, we will start whenever.”
Four rescue workers – including mine rescue experts and paramedics – will descend into the gold and copper mine where the 32 Chileans and one Bolivian have been stuck since a cave-in on August 5. After taking down the first rescuer, the Phoenix will ride back up with the first miner inside.
Though several men, including shift leader Luis Urzúa, have volunteered to go last, it seems the men are a bit more nervous of being the first to step into the cage. Officials say the first to be rescued will be young, able, experienced miners to ensure that they can operate the Phoenix in case of problems and are able to relay information to the authorities at the surface.
The men will switch to a high-protein, high-calorie liquid diet supplemented with magnesium and other minerals three hours before the rescue to reduce the risk of them vomiting or fainting during the nail-biting 15-minute trip.
They will wear underwear and t-shirts containing copper fibres, which fight infection, high-tech glasses to shield their eyes and special suits including “bio-harness belts” which will relay their vital signs via Bluetooth to a computer and will be in contact verbally with rescuers.
Once out, they will be assessed by doctors and reunited with their families before being helicoptered to hospital.