Copiapo: After more than two months trapped deep in a Chilean mine, 33 miners were tantalisingly close to rescue on Sunday.Drillers have completed an escape shaft, and Chile's mining minister says a video inspection shows the hole's walls are firm enough to allow the men to be hoisted out as early as Wednesday.
Officials said late on Saturday that workers first must reinforce the top few hundred feet (almost 100 metres) of the tunnel and have begun welding steel pipes for that purpose.
The completion of the 28-inch (71-centimetre)-diameter escape shaft on Saturday morning caused great excitement in the tent city known as "Camp Hope," where the miners' relatives had held vigil for an agonising 66 days since a cave-in sealed off the gold and copper mine on 5 August.
Miners videotaped the piston-powered hammer drill's breakthrough at 2,041 feet (622 metres) underground and could be seen cheering and embracing, the drillers said.
On the surface, the rescuers chanted, danced and sprayed champagne so excitedly that some of their hardhats tumbled off.
Later, a video inspection of the shaft gave rescuers enough confidence in the tunnel's stability that they decided they will encase only its first 315 feet (96 metres).
The plan is to insert 16 sections of half-inch (1.27 centimetre)-thick steel pipe into the top of the hole, which curves like a waterfall at first before becoming nearly vertical for most of its descent into the chamber deep in the mine.That work would begin immediately, Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said.
Then an escape capsule built by Chilean naval engineers, its spring-loaded wheels pressing against the hole's walls, can be lowered into it via a winch and the trapped miners brought up one by one.
Golborne and other government officials had insisted that determining whether to encase the whole shaft, only part of it, or none of it, would be a technical decision, based on the evidence and the expertise of a team of eight geologists and mining engineers.Encasing the full shaft would have added another week or so before the rescue could begin - if it could actually be done.
The political consequences were inescapable.Chile's success story would evaporate if a miner should get stuck on the way up for reasons that might have been avoided.
Some miners' families wanted the entire shaft lined with pipe, but some engineers involved said the risk of the capsule getting jammed in the un-reinforced hole was less than the risk of the pipes getting jammed and ruining their hard-won exit route.Many experts doubted whether encasing the entire shaft was even possible.
On Sunday, family members rejoicing in the knowledge that their loved ones might soon be rescued."I am happy because my son is about to come out, and it is the Lord's miracle that my son is alive with the others," said Celestina Bugueno.
Health Minister Jaime Manalich said the miners' anxiety is growing about starting their rescue, an operation that should take about a day-and-a-half to complete as they are pulled out one by one in a specially built capsule.Manalich also confirmed that a list has been drawn up suggesting the order in which the 33 miners should be rescued.
The final order will be determined by a Navy special forces paramedic who will be lowered into the mine to prepare the men for their journey.The completion of the escape shaft thrilled Chileans, who have come to see the rescue drama as a test of the nation's character and pride.
In Santiago, the rescue efforts dominated newspaper headlines on Sunday. One resident called it a "joy" for all Chileans.AP