Chile to start freeing miners on Tuesday night

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COPIAPO, Chile, Oct 11 (Reuters) – Rescuers will start evacuating 33 trapped miners late on Tuesday and have successfully tested a capsule to hoist them to the surface to end their two-month ordeal, officials said on Monday.

The specially designed bullet-shaped cage was lowered almost the entire length of the escape shaft without a hitch, Mining Minister Laurence Golborne told reporters.

Once the evacuations start, at midnight on Tuesday (0300 GMT, Wednesday), it will take 48 hours to hoist the men up from inside the caved-in mine half a mile underground, he said.

Four rescuers will be lowered to help the miners prepare to return to the surface from the darkness of the tunnel they have been trapped in since the Aug. 5 collapse at the gold and copper mine in the Atacama desert.

“We’re so happy we’re going to see our son,” said Doris Contreras, whose son Pedro Cortez will be one of the last to be pulled up because he is the communications expert. “It doesn’t matter if he’s one of the last. We just want him to come out.”

Rescue workers finished reinforcing the escape shaft on Monday morning. Engineers decided to line only part of the narrow, nearly 2,050 foot-long (625-metre) shaft with metal tubes, aiming to avoid any last-minute disaster.

Rescuers installed the tubes to head off the risk of rocks breaking off the walls of the drill shaft and blocking the exit of the capsule, dubbed the “Phoenix” after the mythical bird.

“The results of the tests have been very promising, very positive, the capsule handles well inside the duct and adapts well both inside the metal tubes and the rock,” Golborne told reporters at the mine.

President Sebastian Pinera, who has ordered a revamp of mine safety regulations in the wake of the accident, has said he plans to visit the mine on Tuesday. One of the 33 miners is a Bolivian national, and Bolivian President Evo Morales has vowed to visit the mine for his rescue.

“It will be a true rebirth, not just for the 33 miners but also for the spirit of unity, strength, faith and hope they have shown our country and the world,” Pinera said during a visit to Ecuador on Monday.

Rescue officials said they would push ahead boring a separate shaft with a rig usually used to drill for oil as a back-up plan, just in case there are any complications. They have halted a third drill.

In a country still recovering from a devastating February earthquake, celebrations broke out across Chile when the drill boring the escape shaft reached the miners on Saturday.

PRAYERS, VIGILS, WAITING

More relatives of the miners arrived at the settlement known as “Camp Hope” near the mine entrance on Monday morning as they count down the hours amid growing anticipation.

“I’m so tired. It’s been far too many days doing nothing, just sitting waiting,” said Alicia Campos, whose son Daniel Herrera is among the trapped miners, as she lined up for a fish sandwich at the tent settlement.

She wants her son to take up another profession.

After weeks of prayers, vigils and agonizing waiting, anxiety is giving way to joy as wives, parents and children count down to reunions with their loved ones.

The men, who have set a world record for the length of time workers have survived underground after a mining accident, have been doing exercises to keep their weight down for their ascent.

They will journey to the surface in capsules just wider than a man’s shoulders with their eyes closed and will immediately be given dark glasses to avoid damaging their eyesight after spending so long in a dimly lit tunnel.

They will be given medical checks in a field hospital set up at the mine. Then they will be able to spend some time with their families, before being flown by helicopter to nearby Copiapo to another hospital.

Helicopter pilots conducted practice flights in the dark overnight.

The miners are in remarkably good health, although some have developed skin infections.

Health Minister Jaime Manalich said four rescuers, including a paramedic, would travel down in the capsules to help prepare the men for their journey to freedom.

He said the government had chosen the most psychologically stable and experienced of the miners to be the first to enter the capsules and face the harrowing, claustrophobic journey.

“They have to be psychologically mature, have a great deal of mining experience and be able to handle a quick training on how to use the harness and oxygen mask in the Phoenix capsule,” Manalich said.

The government brought in experts from the U.S. NASA space agency to help keep the men mentally and physically fit during the ordeal, which has gripped the world and drawn messages of support from Pope Benedict and World Cup soccer stars.

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