Chile mine rescue 'to take months'


Rescue workers in Chile today reinforced a small drill hole to serve as an umbilical cord to 33 miners found alive 17 days after a cave-in in Chile's far north and said it will take months to dig them out.

In what relatives called a miracle, the miners yesterday tied a note to a perforation drill that had bored a shaft the circumference of a grapefruit to the refuge where they are sheltered, 2,300 feet (700 meters) vertically underground.

The accident in the small gold and copper mine has shone a spotlight on mine safety in Chile, the world's number one copper producer, although accidents are rare at major mines. It is not seen having a significant impact on Chile's output.

Mining minister Laurence Golborne told Reuters rescue workers would send down plastic tubes containing glucose, hydration gels, liquid nutrients and medicine to the miners through the drill hole to keep them alive while they dig a new shaft to extract them - which could take up to four months.

"The wait is very different now," said Elias Barros (57) whose brother is among those trapped. "It is a wait free of anguish. This isn't over but we are much more hopeful it will end happily."

Relatives wrote letters to send down the shaft to the miners to help boost morale during the long wait ahead.

Andre Sougarret, manager of state copper giant Codelco's El Teniente mine, who is heading up the drilling effort, said engineers would drill two more shafts, one to ensure ventilation and communication in coming months, and another wider one to extract them via a pulley.

Engineers are transporting a more powerful drill from another mine and must still decide where to bore the larger hole without risking further cave-ins at the unstable mine. He said it would take three to four months to drill the extraction hole.

The miners are 4.5 miles (7 km) inside the winding mine.

They are sheltered in a sparse 50 square meter refuge, an area the size of a small apartment, which contains two long wooden benches.

Tanks of water, water from drilling machines and ventilation shafts helped the miners to survive but they had very limited food supplies. Health officials estimate they may have lost about 17.5 to 20 pounds (8 to 9 kg) each.

Rescuers lowered a television camera down the bore-hole yesterday and some of the miners looked into the lens. Some had removed their shirts because of the heat in the mine and officials said they looked in better-than-expected condition.

The miners used the batteries of a truck in the mine to power lights in the deposit and charge their helmet lamps.

"It will take time but it doesn't matter how long it takes to have a happy ending," Chilean President Sebastian Pinera said after flying the mine yesterday. Mr Pinera has sacked top officials of Chile's mining regulator and vows a major overhaul of the agency in light of the accident.

As night fell yesterday, jubilant relatives of the trapped miners gathered with rescue workers around bonfires for a barbecue, celebrating with traditional live music and dance as a cold fog enveloped the mine head.

Thousands of Chileans honked their horns across the country last night, and burst into applause at restaurants when they heard the news.

"This was a 17-day nightmare," said 42-year-old miner Sandro Rojas, whose brother, two cousins and nephew are among those trapped. "When I see my brother, I'm going to tell him I love him and smother him with kisses. To be honest, I don't know if I'll be able to speak I'm so excited."

The government says the San Jose mine, owned by local private company Compania Minera San Esteban Primera, has suffered a series of mishaps and 16 workers were killed in recent years.