Saturday 16 December 2017

Video: Freedom just hours away for 33 miners

It took 33 days -- one day for each trapped miner -- but the first of the three drilling operations racing to reach the Chilean group's subterranean refuge has finally achieved its objective.

The news triggered wild celebrations among the miners' relatives gathered far above in the baking Atacama desert and rejoicing across the entire nation early on Saturday.

The Chilean government aims to start the evacuation on Wednesday in one of the most complex rescue efforts in mining history.

It could take up to two days to hoist all 33 men to the surface.

"It's the best feeling you can have," said James Stefanic, the on-site operations manager for Geotec, the company in charge of the Plan B drilling operation.


Like everyone else involved in the long and complex operation he was teary eyed, he said. "It was pretty exciting and very emotional."

For the best part of five weeks his giant T130 drill had been boring downwards, its pneumatic hammers crushing the rock while the drill heads ground it.

Day after day, around the clock, the drill pursued a hole the width of a grapefruit down towards the miners. The drilling had to be regularly halted while worn-out parts were replaced.

By dawn on Saturday the drill had penetrated to within about 4m (13ft) of a passage 630m under ground to which the miners had access. By that stage the drilling had slowed to a snail's pace to protect the men whom the shaft was supposed to save.

When the drill finally broke through the roof of the passage the miners below and Mr Stefanic's 40-strong team above erupted simultaneously. "They all started shouting and hugging and celebrating," he said.

As the news spread through Camp Esperanza the miners' relatives wept and embraced. In towns and cities across Chile people waved flags and honked their car horns.

Two other drilling operations known as Plan A and Plan C were simultaneously boring rescue shafts, but "you can't think about it as a race", Mr Stefanic said.

For Mr Stefanic and his team, their work is over. They have contributed hugely to the rescue operation, and must now watch others extract the 33 miners through the shaft that they have drilled.


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