Latin America

A Shaft Of Hope Opens For Trapped Miners

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There's been a breakthrough, literally, in the story of 33 Chilean miners who have been trapped underground since Aug. 5. This morning, a drill boring a shaft to reach the miners broke through to the underground space they have occupied for the past 66 days. Now rescuers have to decide whether it's safe to extract the men. Host Scott Simon talks to reporter Annie Murphy at the scene in Copiapo, Chile.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

There's been a breakthrough, and we do not use that word metaphorically, in the story of 33 Chilean miners who've been trapped underground since August 5th. Today, a drill boring a shaft to reach the miners broke through to the underground space that they have occupied for the past 66 days. Now rescuers have to decide whether and when it's safe to extract the men.

Reporter Annie Murphy is in Copiapo, Chile.

Annie, thanks very much for being with us.

ANNIE MURPHY: Thank you.

SIMON: What was the reaction like when that bell sounded and the breakthrough was known?

MURPHY: People were just ecstatic. I think people were kind of dumbfounded because they've been waiting so long. It's been, I think, about - I think it's been 33 days since they've been, you know, trying to - since they made contact and they've been trying to get to the miners with this rescue shaft.

So I think people were just kind of almost, you know, couldn't believe that they had actually hit, you know, this point that they'd been working towards. And then once it kind of sunk in, you know, family members celebrating, hugging each other, just kind of gaping, burst into tears. A lot of horns and bells being rung. Just a lot of, you know, kind of celebratory noise at the camp.

And then you had a big group of family members go up this hillside that's right next to the camp where they have, you know, 33 flags set up. And all these family members gathered there and, you know, continued celebrating on the hillside.

So it's just, you know, a very - the camp is very exuberant this morning.

SIMON: The breakthrough being noted, there are some very testing days ahead with some very delicate engineering, right?

MURPHY: That's correct. You know, the government, and I think the family members are very aware of this too, because whenever you speak to them, whether an official from the government or a family member, they say, you know, this is just a step ahead. This is not, you know, the final point.

Now we have the actual rescue of these men, the physical extraction of them from, you know, where they are, almost half a mile underground. And that's a very delicate operation. So they need to - right now they're going to start, you know, preparing this tunnel in order to receive these rescue capsules that they prepared for the men and figure out exactly what kind of conditions they're looking at in terms of pulling the men out from underground.

SIMON: Now, I mean, help us understand this, because, firstly, that path is not straight down. There's some twists and turns, which always present the possibility that the rescue capsule could get snagged on something. And they have to decide, as I understand it, whether or not to line that rescue - I guess the passage, we'd call it now - with some kind of tubing to prevent rocks from caving in.

MURPHY: That's correct. It seems like at this point that that point whether or not to line the tunnel and the drawbacks that could be presented if they don't, and if they do, are the biggest challenge that they're facing.

This tunnel, as you said, is very irregular. It's not like it's just a straight shot. And you have rocks jutting out and things like that. So the government needs - what they're going to do once they remove this machinery that is inside the tunnel right now that's being used to drill it - once they have clear passage, they're going to lower cameras and examine the sides of the tunnel, examine the condition that it's in and see if they think it's feasible to just line part of the tunnel with this metal casing or if they feel like it's necessary to line the entire tunnel with this metal casing, which, you know, that would be a big task. That could take I think up to eight days, they've said that could take.

And then also if they line the tunnel with this casing, that doesn't mean that it's a, you know, a straight shot and smooth sailing. If they line the tunnel, this lining itself could become upset or disturbed and could also cause hitches for this capsule going up and down. So there's no one way that they, you know, have an assured, you know, easy rescue going on.

SIMON: Do we know a timetable? And I know there are plans to lower a couple of rescue workers down there as soon as possible too.

MURPHY: Right. Well, first, I mean, either way before they can lower anyone down they have to assure the stability of this tunnel and get it to the best condition that they think it can be. So that could be anywhere, you know, they'll start that later on today after the conditions are set.

And that could be anywhere from, you know, two days to eight days if they decide to line the tunnel entirely, that they actually start sending down the capsule with people in it. The first capsule will go down with - well, the first two trips will be lowering down a miner and then also lowering down a medical professional - a paramedic or a doctor - who will - together they'll help evaluate what exactly the condition is of these miners that are down below and help plan how they're going to be lifted to the surface.

SIMON: We've just about run out of time, but boy, has this story captured Chile, hasn't it?

MURPHY: It really has. People are just riveted here. I mean, they don't really talk about anything else in the news these days.

SIMON: Well, Annie, thanks so much for being with us and we'll talk to you later.

MURPHY: Thank you.

SIMON: Reporter Annie Murphy. And recapping the news, rescuers in Chile have drilled a shaft into the underground space where 33 miners have been trapped since August 5. We'll bring you more news as we learn of it.

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