Thirty-three miners who have been trapped underground in a northern Chile mine for the past 17 days are all alive, President Sebastian Piñera announced Sunday. Rescuers heard hammering noises when they sent a new probe into the mine.
When the probe came back it had a note tied to it saying we’re fine down here in the shelter, the 33 of us” a rescue worker said. The men were working at a depth of around 700 metres at the San Jose mine, near the city of Copiapo, when the rock above them collapsed.
A television camera managed to film several of the miners at the shelter, with no shirts but looking strong who waved enthusiastically. The clip was seen by President Piñera and officials and will be shown to families and friends before putting it on the air.
On hearing the news Chileans in many cities took to the streets to celebrate, cars sounded their horns, flags were flown and in some public gatherings the national anthem was sung.
Until Sunday, there had been no word from the miners and hopes for their survival had all but faded. Several attempts to drill into the shelter had failed.
President Piñera was at the mine on Sunday when he announced the breakthrough. Brandishing the miners' note for TV cameras he hailed the news saying:
It will take months to get them out. It will take time, but it doesn't matter how long it takes, to have a happy ending.
The miners are reported to be 7 kilometres inside gold and copper mine and about 700 metres vertically underground. They have been trapped since 5 August when the main access tunnel collapsed.
Authorities said the men are in a mine shaft shelter about the size of a small apartment and have limited amounts of food. Rescuers plan to send narrow plastic tubes down the borehole with food, hydration gels and communications equipment, including cameras and microphones.
However, the chief engineer in charge of the rescue operation, Andres Sougarret, has warned that it will take at least four months and more powerful digging equipment to reach the men.
A shaft 66 centimetres in diameter will take at least 120 days,” he said.
On Saturday relatives of the trapped men had accused the authorities of not doing enough to reach the men. One of their complaints was that officials had so far insisted on using probes to locate the miners, rather than digging tunnels through which they could be rescued.
Many of the trapped men's relatives have been camped outside the mine since the tunnel collapse occurred. There were jubilant scenes as the news that contact had been made broke.
When the mine collapsed Piñera who was in Colombia for the taking office of President Juan Manuel Santos flew back to Chile and promised “every possible human effort” to rescue the miners.
Further landslides abort an attempt to reach the miners through ventilation ducts.
News begins to surface that the mine was not in conditions to be operated and several investigations on the issue are instructed.
After the first week Mining Minister Laurence Golborne admits that making contact with the trapped miners will take days given the complexity of the operation and a first probe drilling misses the shelter.
However on Saturday micro-cameras reveal that the collapse area reached 400 metres but not the 700 metres area where the shelter is located.
On Sunday a drill reaches 688 metres, close to the refuge and a few hours later contact is established. That’s when the miners send the piece of paper saying they are alive.