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Mine rescue effort grips Chile, the world
  • | AFP | October 12, 2010 04:11 PM

Chile counted down the hours Tuesday to the start of a dramatic operation to winch 33 miners to the surface, with a presidential welcome awaiting them after 10 weeks trapped underground.

Silhouettes of journalists are seen at the Esperanza camp in the San Jose mine near Copiapo, some 800 km north of Santiago on October 11, 2010.

When the men are hauled out of the earth that has kept them prisoner longer than anybody on record, they will go from humid, dark isolation to a blaze of publicity normally reserved for movie stars or sporting heroes.

More than 1,700 journalists from around the world have turned up to record their salvation, which is scheduled to start at midnight Tuesday (0300 GMT Wednesday) and go on for two days.

Each of the men is to be slowly winched up from the tunnel they took refuge in after an August 5 collapse in the upper galleries of their mine outside Copiapo, northern Chile.

The 622-meter (2,041-foot) ascent is almost as high as two Eiffel Towers, one on top of the other.

It will take around 15-20 minutes for the metal capsule enclosing each miner to arrive at the surface, and around an hour for the contraption to do a round trip to pick up the next man.

At the camp near the mouth of the rescue shaft, a celebratory vibe was already taking hold.

It was certain to go up another notch when Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, accompanied by Bolivian President Evo Morales, were to turn up to participate in the rescue operation.

Thirty-two of the miners are Chilean. One is Bolivian.

"The rescue is even closer than ever," Pinera said during a trip to Ecuador on Monday. "And I intend tomorrow, Tuesday to be with the families of the 33 miners to share this amazing moment."

The miners were said to be anxious as their freedom neared.

"They are praying to ease the tension," said Alberto Segovia, who spoke at the weekend with his trapped brother Dario Segovia via videolink.

"He doesn\'t want to be the first, because he\'s afraid. No one wants to be the first. Can you imagine being brought up 700 meters?"

Another miner, Mario Gomez, was also "nervous, because of what they are all going through. There is a mix of heightened emotions down there, lots of anguish and joy," said Rossana Gomez.

Andres Sougarret, the head engineer overseeing the rescue operation said possible problems had been looked at and solutions worked out.

Falling rocks or damage to the narrow cradle could occur, Sougarret said. "But we\'ll have the means to unblock them."

Though officials have refused to say in what order the men will emerge, they have said the first group to exit will include some of the strongest men.

Those with chronic health problems including high blood pressure or respiratory ailments will go next, followed by a final group of healthy miners.

Before the rescue begins, two mining experts and two Marine nurses will go into the mine and determine in which order the men will come out.

During tests, the miners had perfect cardiac and respiratory reactions, said Jean Romagnoli, a sports doctor on the rescue team.

But it remained to be seen whether anyone would panic during the actual operation.

The narrow cage bringing up the men had been painted in the colors of the Chilean flag and baptized the "Phoenix" to symbolize the rebirth the miners were to experience on rediscovering the surface.

Each will wear medical sensors to monitor stress levels, and a camera and microphone system will keep them in constant contact with officials.

Should the capsule become blocked from above, the miner inside can detach the cage and slowly lower themselves back down.

If all goes to plan, though, the miners will be brought out and straight into the care of doctors standing by. Two or three close relatives will be able to see them then, too.

Authorities intend to keep the men under voluntary observation for two days -- after which they will be free to exercise their newfound fame.

Chilean media reports suggest they are anticipating lucrative book and film deals.

A journalist who has been advising the miners on how to handle the intense media focus awaiting them, Alejandro Pino, said they will be "available" to speak to reporters after they first have seen their families.

But he did not give details of when they would do so, or if they would demand payment for recounting their ordeal.

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