Escape Shaft Could Reach Chilean Miners In Days

At the San Jose mine in Chile, 33 miners who've been trapped deep underground since August are still there. But drillers who've been boring a shaft down say they could reach the miners in a matter of days. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly talks to Al Jazeera reporter Monica Villamizar.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

At the San Jose mine in northern Chile, rescuers say they're getting very close. Thirty-three miners who've been trapped deep underground since August 5th are still there, 64 days later. But drillers who've been boring a shaft down say they could reach the miners by tomorrow. They could begin pulling them out as soon as next week.

That all depends, though, on whether engineers can manage to keep the shaft from collapsing and trapping the miners all over again. That would be the nightmare scenario. Well, on the line now from just outside the mine is Al-Jazeera reporter Monica Villamizar. Give us the latest, Monica. Where do rescue efforts stand today?

Ms. MONICA VILLAMIZAR (Reporter, Al-Jazeera): Well, I can tell you that there are, as you know, three separate drills. They're drilling simultaneously in different points of the mine to see which one gets there first. They hope to break through. That's what they call the moment when they will connect the whole shaft from the workshop down in the mine to the surface in - either tomorrow, or even possibly Saturday. After that, the most important decision that they will have to make is if the shaft needs a casing to be applied.

KELLY: Let me ask you about that. There's a debate over this, I gather, over -this would be some sort of steel pipe that would line the shaft. Help us visualize that. What would it look like?

Ms. VILLAMIZAR: Absolutely. It's quite complicated, I mean, the technical aspect. But what I understand is it's a steel lining or casing in the form of, actually, tubes. However, as you can imagine, the tube - there's not a 700-meter tube that can be pulled - taken down. So what they have to do is they have assembled 12-meter parts of the tube. They have to glue them together before actually putting them down. And this tube will serve as the casing - as something that will cover the shaft so that it's not just bare rock. They will have to do - apply a casing for the first hundred meters, for sure, but what they need to decide is if the casing can be completed all the way to the workshop or not.

KELLY: Once engineers are convinced that the shaft is stable enough, the plan is - what? To bring these men up in some sort of capsule?

Ms. VILLAMIZAR: Absolutely. They have a capsule that they have shown us a few days ago. It's a steel capsule. It has a roof, and the person will get into the capsule, which is a small - it's a coffin, basically. It's pretty small. It just - there's just room for a person standing, without moving much. It has some oxygen tanks, and they will pull them up as if they were in an elevator.

Just to get a sense of how deep this is, it's two times the Empire State Building. So imagine going on an elevator up the Empire State Building, and then doing that again. And, obviously, it has to be done slowly, because of the pressure.

KELLY: I gather that there's actually a physical trainer there on site helping the men to prepare for this because it is expected to be tricky.

Ms. VILLAMIZAR: Absolutely. It's very tricky. And I've been talking to all the men in charge. You have experts in psychology, journalists who are teaching them, actually - this is very interesting - how to - public speaking. They've sent them books down the small borehole on public speaking, so that they can face the world out here - as you know, there's thousands of journalists waiting for that moment. And they're going to send them - I had a chance to see today, by chance, the sunglasses that they're going to send. They're $400 each. And this is very important, because once you are in the darkness for such a long period of time, if you come up outside and you're faced with daylight, you can suffer ciliar paralysis, which is a very serious condition, obviously. So they need to be protected.

KELLY: That's Monica Villamizar. She's a reporter with Al-Jazeera, updating us there on the situation unfolding at the San Jose mine in northern Chile.

Monica, thanks very much.

Ms. VILLAMIZAR: Thank you.

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