COPIAPO, Chile (Reuters) - Chilean rescuers look close to ending the ordeal of 33 miners trapped for two months deep underground, and could start evacuating them next week in a survival story that has gripped the world.
In one of the most challenging rescue operations in mining history, engineers could finish drilling a shaft half a mile down to the miners as early as Friday evening. But it will still then take days to hoist them to the surface one at a time in special capsules.
Relatives of the trapped miners sang and prayed all night around a bonfire at the mine-head in Chile's Atacama desert, waving banners and lighting candles for each of the men.
"We are calm. We've already held on for two months. Now we are in the closing stage," said Samuel Avalos, 70, whose son is among the trapped. "We hope it's over!"
Mining Minister Laurence Golborne, spearheading the rescue effort, said engineers must still decide how much of the shaft to line with metal tubing before lifting them out in the capsules.
Once the escape tunnel is finished, it would take anything from 3 to 10 days to get the men out, he told reporters at the mine.
Following the August 5 collapse, engineers first bored tiny drill holes the width of a grapefruit to locate the men stuck in a tunnel 2,300 feet below ground -- equivalent to 233 stories.
The men were found 17 days after the cave-in, miraculously all still alive, when the miners tied a message to the perforation drill, triggering celebrations across Chile.
Rescuers then used the ducts as umbilical cords to pass the miners high nutrition gels, water, medicine and later solid food to keep them alive.
Trapped for 64 days, the men have set a new world record for the length of time workers have survived trapped underground after a mining accident. They are in remarkably good health.
"Hopefully, God willing, in a few days we will be able to cry as a nation in happiness, just as we did when we found out they were alive, when we see them emerge from the depths of the mountain and hug their wives and children," President Sebastian Pinera said.
Images of the miners caught on a video camera lowered down the drill hole showed them bearded and bare-chested to cope with heat and humidity deep in the small, accident-plagued gold and copper mine in Chile's mining heartland.
The government brought in a team of NASA experts to help keep the men mentally and physically fit during the protracted rescue bid. The men had each lost an estimated 22 pounds (10 kg) during the 2-1/2 weeks before they were found alive.
The miners have been doing exercises and helping clear debris to keep their weight down so that they can fit in the evacuation shaft just two feet in diameter.
They will be hoisted to the surface in specially designed capsules only slighter wider than a man's shoulders.
The miners made their own latrines in one section of the tunnel to ensure hygiene and avoid disease.
They have also been exchanging letters with relatives on the surface, and watching videos of soccer greats like Maradona and Pele on miniature projectors sent down to them to help while the time. Pope Benedict sent them rosaries.
Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Alejandro Lifschitz and Jerry Norton