By Peter Prengaman Associated Press
SAN JOSE MINE, Chile — The 33 trapped Chilean miners who have shown astonishing discipline a half-mile underground will have to aid their own escape — clearing thousands of tons of rock that will fall as the rescue hole is drilled, the engineer in charge of drilling said Sunday.
After drilling three small bore holes in recent weeks to create lines of communication with the miners and deliver basic food and medicine, Chile’s state-owned Codelco mining company will begin boring a rescue hole this afternoon that will be wide enough to pull the men up through 2,300 feet of earth.
The first step will be to drill a “pilot hole” similar in size to the other three. Then much larger machine cutters will slowly grind through that hole, forcing crushed rock to fall down into the mine shaft area near the trapped men.
Failure to keep the bottom clear of debris could quickly plug the hole, delaying a rescue that officials say could take up to four months.
“The miners are going to have to take out all that material as it falls,” Andres Sougarret, Codelco’s head engineer on the operation, said.
In all, the miners will have to clear between 3,000 and 4,000 tons of rock, work that will require crews of about a half-dozen men working in shifts 24 hours a day.
The men have basic clearing equipment, such as wheel barrows and industrial-sized battery-powered sweepers, Sougarret said. The hole will likely end up several hundred yards from their living area in the mine’s shelter, giving the men room to maneuver and store the rocks, he added.
Sougarret declined to estimate how long the work would take, saying it would depend on how each step went.
Once drilling begins, the team will have to decide whether to fit the wider hole with metal casing, often used to seal a hole and prevent collapses in the walls.
“We may not have to use it in this case because the rock is really high quality, really strong,” he said.
From the moment the mine collapsed Aug. 5, the trapped men have had a central role in keeping themselves alive — getting to the safety chamber, rationing food and keeping order with extraordinary discipline.
In video footage released by the government late Thursday, one of the miners says proudly that they will be helping with the operation, a sign that authorities have already prepared them.
Still, many questions remain. What physical and mental condition will the men be in when they are called on to help save themselves?
Sougarret said it will be one to two months before large quantities of rocks start falling. Can the men do such hard labor for a couple months just on food that will fit down the narrow tubes? And then there is what will be a harrowing rescue: each man will be pulled up through the 26-inch hole in a tube, a ride that will take about an hour each.
Psychologists have been called in to help the men cope, and families that watched footage from the mine shelter said the men had lost a lot of weight.
Alberto Segovia said his brother, who is trapped in the mine, had already lost more than 15 pounds.
“He looked sad,” Segovia said, reflected a bit, and then added that his brother also “looked determined to survive.”