Hugo Infante/AFP/Getty Images
A rescue worker steps out of a capsule similar to the one that will be used to liberate the trapped miners at the San Jose mine near Copiapo, Chile.
A rescue worker steps out of a capsule similar to the one that will be used to liberate the trapped miners at the San Jose mine near Copiapo, Chile. Hugo Infante/AFP/Getty Images
Families in northern Chile anxiously waited as husbands, sons and brothers began preparing for an operation expected late Tuesday that may finally bring them to the surface after more than nine weeks trapped thousands of feet down in a dank and dusty mine.
The dramatic endgame for the 33 men unfolding near the town of Copiapo was speeding up. Crews finished reinforcing an escape shaft early Monday and have successfully completed a series of test runs involving a 13-foot-tall rescue chamber intended to bring the men up one by one.
"It didn't even raise any dust," Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said.
Golborne said the first trapped miner was expected to reach the surface late Tuesday, and rescue team coordinator Andre Sougarret tweeted Monday evening that "today the miners sleep their last night together!"
After the men have been examined on the surface, they will meet with between one and three people whom they have personally designated.
The miners also made a pact on how they will deal with the flood of requests for media interviews once they emerge, Annie Murphy reported for NPR on Monday. "They've agreed to do it in such a way that no one can profit more than anyone else," she said from Copiapo, near the San Jose mine.
Murphy said the men have requested that a lawyer draw up a document to that effect.
"They think that if they can do this correctly, it could be done in such a way that none of them would have to work ever again," she said. "Given what they've gone through and the life of a miner here in general, it's pretty understandable."
Plans called for journalists to be blocked by a screen from viewing the miners once they reach the surface. A media platform has been set up more than 300 feet away from the mouth of the shaft at the gold and copper mine.
Two government rescuers will be lowered down to evaluate the health of each man and to make a final decision on which order they come up. Able-bodied men will be the first ones lifted up through the narrow shaft, followed by the weakest and then by the very strongest, officials told NPR. Each extraction should take 20 to 25 minutes.
On Monday, the Phoenix I capsule — the biggest of three rescue chambers built by Chilean navy engineers — made its first test runs after the top 180 feet of the shaft were lined with steel pipe, according to rescue leader Sougarret.
The empty capsule was winched down 2,000 feet, just 40 feet short of the mine shaft where the men have taken refuge since the Aug. 5 collapse.
"We didn't send it [all the way] down because we could risk that someone will jump in," a grinning Golborne told reporters.
Engineers had planned to extend the piping nearly twice as far, but they decided to stop after the sleeve — the hole is angled 11 degrees off vertical at its top before plumbing down, like a waterfall — became jammed during a probe.
After meeting briefly with family, the men will go by helicopter to a hospital, where they will spend two days under medical observation. Officials said they expect to see fungal infections as well as lung and eye problems caused by the long isolation in poor conditions.
The men will receive psychological counseling for at least six months.
As the miners' wives prepare to welcome their husbands back to the sunlit world, many were taking special pains to look their best after the long and tense separation. A hair dresser had set up a temporary salon at an area reserved for relatives, dubbed Camp Hope, in the midst of the desolate Atacama desert.
Monica Arraya spoke to NPR as she had her hair highlighted and straightened. For 68 days, she has been waiting for her husband, a brother, an uncle and her brother-in-law to come back to her.
"This is a good way to forget the anxiety for a little while and to pull myself together," Arraya said, adding that the sun and dry desert air have "done a lot of damage" to her hair.
Richard Reynolds reported for NPR from the San Jose mine. Material from The Associated Press also was used in this report