Tense hours ahead as escape shaft awaits trapped miners
SAN JOSE MINE, Chile - A smooth-walled path to daylight awaited 33 trapped miners Sunday as they entered the tense final hours of a two-month odyssey christened in the terror of collapsing rock deep under a Chilean mountain.
With the eyes of the world on Chile's no-expense-spared effort to ensure all the men emerge unharmed, the miners' physical and mental health was being fastidiously monitored. Precautions were taken against all manner of complications -- aspirin to prevent blood clots, a special drink to settle the stomach, video monitors to watch for panic attacks.
And officials said the men were so giddy with confidence they were squabbling on Saturday, the day drills broke through to them, over who would get to be the last to take a twisting, 20-minute ride the half-mile up to a rock-strewn desert moonscape and into the embrace of those they love.
A tentative but secret list was drafted of which miners should come out first when the extraction begins, probably on Wednesday. But Health Minister Jaime Manalich said the otherwise co-operative miners were so sure of the exit plan that they were arguing about sequence.
"They were fighting with us yesterday because everyone wanted to be at the end of the line, not the beginning," he told reporters.
Manalich told The Associated Press that a few had volunteered in conversations among themselves to go up first. But none had volunteered publicly, he said.
"I think they're more excited than scared or nervous," Brandon Fisher, president of Center Rock Inc., the Pennsylvania company that made the hammer-style drill heads that created the opening for the rescue, told AP. "That first guy up might be a little nervous, though."
The final order will probably be determined by two paramedics, one from the Navy and one from the Codelco state mining company, who will be lowered into the mine to prepare the men for their journey in a rescue capsule built by Chilean naval engineers.
Over the past week, all the miners underwent tests to assess their health. Manalich said officials were concerned about acute hypertension in some of the miners as well as the opposite -- sudden drops in blood pressure -- in others because of the speed of the ascent to the surface.
Another concern is blood clotting. To counteract it, the miners began taking 100 milligrams each of aspirin on Sunday, he said. They will also put on compression socks and a special girdle and will be on a special high-calorie liquid prepared and donated by NASA for the final six hours before being removed, Manalich said.
The liquid-only diet is to prevent them from becoming nauseated. The rescue capsule is expected to rotate 350 degrees some 10 to 12 times through curves in the 28-inch-diameter escape hole on its way up, he added.
Officials biggest worry was panic attacks, the health minister said.
"They are very nervous. But on the other hand they're so busy with what's happening," he said. "There's no time to think or be distracted."
In large part, that's by design. The psychologists and engineers managing the miners' days have kept them busy. On Saturday, several blasted open a wider chamber at the base of the escape hole with 12 pounds of dynamite.
A small video camera in the escape capsule will be trained on each miner's face so it can be watched as he ascends. Each will also have a mask attached to an oxygen tank affixed to their face and two-way voice communication.
The miners will also wear sweaters because they'll experience a shift in climate from about 90 degrees Fahrenheit underground to temperatures hovering near freezing if they emerge at night. And those coming out during daylight hours will wear sunglasses.
After a quick on-site medical check, they will be helicoptered to a hospital 15 minutes away where they will be put under observation in a ward dark as a movie theatre.
Officials began detailed monitoring Sunday of their health, sweating every detail of the ascent that is expected to last about 20 minutes for each man.
"Today we sent down special equipment to measure their heart rate, their respiration rate and skin temperature," Manalich said.
A video inspection Saturday showed the hole's walls firm and smooth, without any fissures or rupture of walls of the mine.
"If this had been a vertical hole we probably could have done it in half the time," said Fisher. It was an emotional roller-coaster-ride -- with no guarantee of success, he said.
The 5 1/2-inch-diameter pilot hole his drills followed down into firm rock laced with quartzite had "really threaded the needle" between several mine shafts.
But the rock is so hard that only the top few hundred feet of the escape hole needed to be reinforced with a steel sleeve. Workers were welding together about 16 steel pipes for that purpose.
The completion of the escape shaft Saturday morning caused bedlam in the tent city known as Camp Hope, where the miners' relatives have held vigil since a cave-in sealed off the gold and copper mine Aug. 5.
The drill that punctured through worked constantly for 28 days with a few breaks when some of its hammers fractured, once on a 6 1/2-foot roof bolt used to support mine shaft ribs.
The escape capsules, equipped with spring-loaded wheels that will press against the hole's walls, will be lowered into the hole via a winch and the trapped miners brought up one by one. Encasing the full shaft would have added another week or so before the rescue could begin -- if it could actually be done. Some miners' families wanted the entire shaft lined.
But the consensus of geologists and engineers was that there was no need.
"I don't think there's any risk of collapse," said Mario Medina Mejia, a geologist in Copiapo, the nearby town where some of the miners live. "It's a hole made into virgin rock."
Such assurances hardly calm the nerves of Rosa Gomez, the second of four daughters of Mario Gomez, who at 63 is the oldest miner trapped below.
"I'm afraid that at the moment the capsule comes up he'll panic," she said.
Gomez, 28, said her nerves were shot and she was physically spent.
"These two months have felt like two years."
Other relatives of the trapped miners had to contend with the incessant crush of more than 750 accredited journalists from all over the globe after the previous day's breakthrough. Many relatives simply disappeared from the mine on Sunday.
Carolina Lobos, waiting at the mine for her father, Franklin, to surface, was simply overwhelmed.
"They're besieging you every five minutes," she said. "You sit down down and yet another journalist shows up."