The 33 trapped Chilean miners may start coming to the surface as early as Tuesday, the country's mining minister said Saturday after rescue workers finished drilling an escape shaft.
"The latest communication we've had from the miners is that they are in great spirits and relaxed," Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said. "As for the timing, we hope to begin rescuing on Tuesday or Wednesday."
The men have been in the San Jose gold and copper mine under the Atacama Desert, 700 kilometres north of Santiago, since Aug. 5 — longer than any miners who ever survived a cave-in.
Golbourne said the first priority is to encase the first 96 metres of the escape shaft with steel because that part of the rock is loose and may collapse.
A doctor will be sent down the shaft to examine the miners and will determine, based on physical condition, who should be sent up first.
The miners will be taken to the surface in special capsules just wider than a man's shoulders.
The drill's success was announced earlier Saturday with the blast of a siren that prompted cheers, tears and embraces across "Camp Hope," where families of the miners have kept vigil since the disaster began.
Drilling went on for 33 days
The "Plan B" drill won a three-way race against two other drills to carve a hole wide enough for an escape cage to pull the miners out one by one.
While "Plan A" and "Plan C" stalled after repeatedly veering off course, the "Plan B" drill reached the miners at a point 622 metres below the surface at 8:05 a.m. local time, after 33 days of drilling.
They survived for more than two weeks on meagre rations before they were discovered in the underground chamber. A few days later, officials were able to send them food, water and medicine through small bore holes.
A small video camera was also lowered into the chamber, allowing miners to send images of themselves to their families.
Once the miners are brought to the surface, they will be examined at a field hospital where they can briefly be reunited with up to three close relatives, officials said.
Then they'll be flown by helicopter in small groups to the regional hospital in Copiapo, where they will use a wing of 33 fresh beds for at least 48 hours.
Only after their physical and mental health is thoroughly examined will they be allowed to go home.