A video inspection of a newly drilled escape tunnel shows the walls only need partial reinforcement before an attempt is made to pull 33 trapped Chilean miners to safety, Chile's mining minister says.
Mining Minister Laurence Golborne made the comment late Saturday, adding the miners could be pulled out as early as Wednesday after work is completed on the top section of the rescue shaft.
The plan is to install 16 sections of 1.27-centimetre-thick steel pipe into the first 96 metres of the hole, which curves like a waterfall at first before becoming nearly vertical for most of its descent into a chamber deep in the San Jose Mine near Copiago.
Encasing the full shaft — if it could actually be done — would have delayed the rescue by a week.
"You would have to put though a 600-metre hole a lot of pipes that weigh more than 150 tonnes," Golborne 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 easy decision to make."
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The latest work follows celebrations on Saturday as the drilling operation reached the cavern where the miners became trapped by a collapse on Aug. 5.
Chilean naval engineers have built an escape capsule that will bring the miners to the surface one by one. Engineers say a winch will lower the capsule, and its spring-loaded wheels will press against the hole's walls as it moves along.
The drill reached the miners at a point 622 metres below the surface, after 33 days of drilling. The breakthrough raised cheers from family members and others above ground.
Gregory Hall, one of the rescue drill operators, said a worker from the Chilean-based drilling company Geotec Boyles Bros., had a live communications link with the miners and captured their reaction.
"They're telling us, we can see the nose [of the drill], we can see the nose," Hall said. "They were all just going crazy. It was wonderful."
Many relatives of the miners have kept a vigil at "Camp Hope" since the collapse at the gold and copper mine and have planted 33 Chilean flags at the site.