Chile miners could be evacuated Wednesday

The evacuation of 33 miners trapped underground in Chile
is likely to start on Wednesday, the country’s mining minister has said.

Laurence Golborne was speaking after engineers had
drilled through to the underground chamber where the miners are sheltering.

Work has now begun to stabilise the top of the rescue
shaft with steel casing, which will take about a day-and-a-half.

The miners have been trapped 700m (2,300ft) underground
since 5 August.

The drilling breakthrough came shortly after 0800 local
time (1200 GMT) on Saturday, sparking celebrations across Chile.

Speaking at a news conference outside the San Jose mine,
Mr Golborne said the decision had been taken to reinforce 96m of the top part
of the newly completed shaft.

He said that 16 steel tubes would be lowered into the
shaft one by one.

The minister said that the rest of the shaft was exposed
rock and did not need to be strengthened.

Once the casing is put together, officials expect it will
take 48 hours to put the rescue capsule in place.

The BBC’s Rajesh Mirchandani , who is at the mine, says a
winch-and-pulley system has to be set up before the capsule, named Phoenix, can
be lowered into the shaft.

Such an operation has never been tried before, he says.

The miners will then be brought up one by one in three
groups: the fitter ones first, then the weaker ones, and finally the strongest
of the group.

But the evacuation will begin only after a doctor – who
will be lowered to the chamber – has examined the miners.

Mr. Golborne said the evacuation of the first miner was
likely to start on Wednesday, although there was a chance that the rescuers
would be able to proceed on Tuesday.

“The process of rescue should last for two days, or
it will take in the range of 48 hours: the whole process from the first miners
to the last one.”

The minister added that “so far everything has gone
smoothly”, but admitted that the operation was not “without risk”.

He also said that the miners were “in great spirits
and relaxed”.

They have been living in the shelter 700m underground
since the collapse in August. However, the Plan B drill – the second of three
which have been working simultaneously – penetrated 624m to a workshop which
can be reached by the miners.

Mr . Golborne said the rescuers were also continuing work
on another, wider shaft, using the Plan C drill, as a back-up.

The miners’ ordeal – now in its 66th day – is the longest
suffered by a group of miners caught underground.

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