Dramatic Endgame Nears For Trapped Chile Miners

This image, taken from a video and released by the government of Chile on Monday, shows rescue workers looking on as a colleague gives a thumb up from inside the rescue capsule. (AP)
This image, taken from a video and released by the government of Chile on Monday, shows rescue workers looking on as a colleague gives a thumb up from inside the rescue capsule. (AP)

They'll come up one by one in green overalls bearing their names on their chests - first the fittest, then the weakest, twisting in a steel cage that proved itself with four flawless test runs deep into the earth.

The dramatic endgame hastened Monday for the 33 Chilean miners who have braved two months underground, with rescuers reinforcing the escape shaft and the 13-foot-tall rescue chamber sliding, as planned, nearly all the way to the trapped men.

"It didn't even raise any dust," Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said.

If all goes well, everything will be in place late Tuesday to begin pulling the men out, officials said. The lead psychologist for the rescue team recommended the extractions begin at dawn Wednesday.

No official decision was announced, but Andre Sougarret, the rescue team coordinator, tweeted Monday evening that "today the miners sleep their last night together!"

On Monday, the Phoenix I capsule - the biggest of three built by Chilean navy engineers, named for the mythic bird that rose from ashes - made its first test run after the top 180 feet of the shaft was encased in tubing, the rescue leader said.

Then the empty capsule was winched 2,000 feet, just 40 feet short of the shaft system that has been the miners' refuge since an Aug. 5 collapse.

"We didn't send it (all the way) down because we could risk that someone will jump in," a grinning Golborne told reporters.

Engineers had planned to extend the piping nearly twice as far, but they decided to stop after the sleeve - the hole is angled 11 degrees off vertical at its top before plumbing down, like a waterfall - became jammed during a probe.

Rescue team psychologist Alberto Iturra said he recommended the first man be pulled out at dawn because the miners are to be taken by Chilean air force helicopters to the nearby city of Copiapo and fog tends to enshroud the mine at night.

It is a roughly 10-minute flight, said Lt. Col. Aldo Carbone, the choppers' squadron commander. He said the pilots have night-vision goggles but will not fly unless it is clear. Ambulances will be ready for backup. The drive would take about an hour.

Officials have drawn up a secret list of which miners should come out first, but the order could change after paramedics and a mining expert first descend in the capsule to evaluate the men and oversee the journey upward.

First out will be the four fittest of frame and mind, said health minister Jaime Manalich. Should glitches occur, these men will be best prepared to ride them out and tell their comrades what to expect.

Next will be 10 who are weakest or ill. One miner suffers from hypertension. Another is a diabetic, and others have dental and respiratory infections or skin lesions from the mine's oppressive humidity.

The last out is expected to be Luiz Urzua, who was shift chief when the men became entombed, several family members of miners told the AP, speaking on condition of anonymity because they did not want to upset government officials.

The men will take a twisting, 20-minute ride for 2,041 feet up to the surface. It should take about an hour for the rescue capsule to make a round trip, deputy rescue coordinator Rene Aguilar told The Associated Press.

Golborne said all would be ready by 12:01 a.m. Wednesday. Officials wanted to make sure the concrete around the steel tubing at the top of the shaft set, he said.

Plans called for the media to be blocked by a screen from viewing the miners when they reach the surface. A media platform has been set up more than 300 feet away from mouth of the hole.

After being extracted, the miners will be ushered through inflatable tunnels, like the ones used in sports stadiums, to ambulances that will take them to a triage station. Once cleared by doctors there, they are to be taken to another area where they'll be reunited with one to three family members chosen by each miner.

After the reunion, the miner will be driven to a heliport for the flight to Copiapo.

Iturra, who has tightly managed the miners' underground lives to keep them fit and busy, turned his attention Monday to their families. Just as the miners will need time to adjust once they have surfaced, so will their families, he said.

Iturra recommended they leave the tent city where they have kept vigil, which is increasingly besieged by journalists. It sprang up amid piles of rock at the copper and gold mine isolated in the coastal desert of Atacama.

"They need to get their feet firmly back on the ground as well," he said. "That's why I sent them home to sleep."

A torrent of emotions awaits the miners when they finally rejoin the outside world.

As trying as it has been for them to survive underground for 68 days, the mine is at least terra cognita. Out of the shaft, they will face challenges so bewildering that no amount of coaching can fully prepare them.

They will be celebrated at first, embraced by their families and pursued by reporters, magnets for a world intensely curious to hear their survival story. They have been invited to visit presidential palaces, take all-expenses-paid vacations and appear on countless TV shows.

Contracts for book and movie deals are pending, along with job offers. More money than they could dream of is already awaiting their signature.

But eventually, a new reality will set in - and for most, it won't be anything like the life they knew before the mine collapsed above their heads.

"Before being heroes, they are victims," University of Santiago psychologist Sergio Gonzalez told the AP. "These people who are coming out of the bottom of the mine are different people ... and their families are, too."

For the loved ones awaiting the miners, news that the rescue tunnel was nearly ready brought a mixture of joy and anxiety.

Maria Segovia, whose 48-year-old brother, Dario, is among those trapped, said that when he is finally out, "I'll tell him I love him, that I'm very proud of you." Then, she said, smiling, "I'll kick his backside" so he never goes into a mine again.

Chile's government has promised each miner at least six months of psychological support, in part to deal with the sudden fame.

At first they'll feel besieged, poorly treated by the media and perhaps overwhelmed by the attention even of their own families, predicted Dr. Claus Behn, a University of Chile physiologist.

Society will "demand to know every minute detail, and they're going to offer enormous quantities of money and popularity," the doctor said.

The miners' psychological support team was designed mostly to help them endure the extreme conditions. They have also received training to deal with the media, told they need not answer every intrusive question.

The miners have seemed happy in videos they filmed and sent to the surface, but some have avoided the exposure. And while Manalich insists they are unified, reflecting the disciplined teamwork that helped them survive, all that could change once they are out.

Already, relations within and between their families have become strained as some seem to be getting more money and attention than others.

A philanthropic Chilean mining executive, Leonardo Farkas, gave $10,000 checks in the miners' names to each of the 33 families, and set up a fund to collect donations. Co-workers who weren't trapped, but were left out of a job - including some who narrowly escaped getting crushed in the collapse - wonder whether they will be taken care of, too.

One miner's child was invited onto a Chilean TV game show where she earned thousands of dollars, and 27 of the 33 workers have filed a $10 million negligence lawsuit against the mine's owners. A similar suit against government regulators is planned.

The money rush will be intense - and temporary. The government required each miner to designate someone to receive their $1,600 monthly salary, and opened bank accounts that only the miners themselves can access.

But Behn said the miners need good financial advice as well so the money doesn't melt away.

"If they're getting now a violent inflow of money, it should be administered so that it can serve them for the rest of their lives," Behn said.

What often happens after situations of extreme isolation is that the survivor tells everything all at once, and when there's nothing left to say, misunderstandings begin.

Manalich said the miners seem incredibly unified.

Brandon Fisher, president of the company that made the drill hammers that opened the escape shaft, cautioned that the miners' unity may not last.

His drill heads also helped save nine men in Pennsylvania in the Quecreek Mine disaster in 2002. They, too, came out of the hole blinking in the glare of TV cameras, and in some cases their friendships and family relationships didn't hold up.

"They're in for the surprise of their lives. From here on out, their lives will have changed," Fisher predicted. "There aren't too many of those guys who get along because of all the attention, the lawsuits, the movie deals. Once money gets involved, it gets ugly."

This program aired on October 12, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.


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