Santiago (AFP) Aug 23, 2010
Chilean rescue teams prepared to launch a potentially months-long bid Monday to retrieve 33 miners found alive and in apparently good health after more than two weeks trapped deep underground.
A camera sent down a bore hole showed the men shirtless, sweaty and happy despite chief rescue engineer Andres Sougarret saying it would take "at least 120 days" to carve out a new shaft after the mine's entrance collapsed.
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera stunned his nation and the world Sunday, when he announced that a note sent through a bore hole at the San Jose gold and copper mine near the city of Copiapo showed all 33 miners were alive.
"All 33 of us are well inside the shelter," said the note, handwritten in bold red capital letters.
Pinera read the message aloud and waved it in the air, as friends and relatives wept with joy outside the northern Chilean mine whose entrance collapsed on August 5, trapping the workers inside.
His words came after days of fading hopes at the mine, located 800 kilometers (500 miles) north of Santiago.
A camera lowered down the bore hole drilled 700 meters (2,300 feet) into the earth showed the miners sweaty and shirtless in the hot (32-36 degrees Celsius, 90-97 Fahrenheit) shelter, but in apparently good condition and high spirits.
"Many of them approached the camera and put their faces right up against it, like children, and we could see happiness and hope in their eyes," Pinera said, adding that the images "gave me a lot of happiness and faith that this is going to end well."
National Emergency Office regional director Carlos Garcia said the trapped miners had some water and lights and that in the next few hours they would get fresh supplies of food and water, which they would have to ration carefully.
Garcia said relatives would be soon allowed to speak with their loved ones through a cable dropped down the drill bore.
As word spread that the miners were alive after 17 days below ground, drivers honked their horns in the capital Santiago and thousands of people gathered in other cities to celebrate and wave national flags.
Until Sunday, there had been no sign that the miners had survived their ordeal.
But then came two notes in a plastic bag attached to a line that had been lowered through the narrow shaft drilled into the shelter.
Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said the first note they pulled out was a letter from Mario Gomez, one of the trapped miners, to his wife Liliana.
"Dear Liliana, I'm well, thank God. I hope to get out soon. Have patience and faith. I haven't stopped thinking about all of you for a single moment," Gomez wrote.
One of the most experienced miners inside the shelter, Gomez said "a little water" was trickling down into the shelter and that for days the drilling machines could be heard clearly from above.
"We're hearing the drilling machine. Let's hope it gets here this time... I'm sure we'll get out of here alive. I hope to talk to you later," he added.
When rescuers drilling a shaft into the area finally broke through Sunday, they pulled out Gomez's letter along with another note, wrapped in a plastic bag and bound with rubber bands, said Mining Minister Laurence Golborne.
The second letter, which was read aloud by President Pinera, confirmed that all 33 miners were alive.
Rescuers said the miners would have to assist in their own release by clearing debris away from the hole beneath ground as drillers worked from above.
Friends and family at the site celebrated the news by cheering and waving a Chilean flag that had been found among the debris left by the earthquake and tsunami that devastated central Chile on February 27.
"They'll come out thin and dirty, but whole and strong, because the miners have shown they have courage and mettle, which is what has kept them together," Pinera said, choking with emotion.
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