COPIAPO, Chile (Reuters) - The first of 33 trapped miners will be pulled to safety in a capsule barely wider than a man’s shoulders on Tuesday night as a two-month ordeal deep inside a Chilean mine draws to an end.
The men have spent 68 days in the hot, humid bowels of a gold and copper mine in Chile’s northern Atacama desert after an August 5 collapse. They now face a claustrophobic journey to the surface in the specially made steel cages, equipped with oxygen masks and escape hatches in case they get stuck.
The miners will be hoisted out one at a time in a two-day operation. The capsule will travel at about 3 feet/(1m) per second, or a casual walking pace, and speed to 10 feet/(3m) per second if the miner being carried gets into trouble.
With Chileans anxiously following the rescue on television, President Sebastian Pinera asked for all churches in the South American nation to ring their bells in celebration when the first miner emerges from the shaft.
Nervous wives, children, parents and friends waited on an arid, rocky hillside around 2,050 feet above the miners, and rescue teams planned to start the rescue operation after 10 p.m. (0100 GMT)
Local television showed engineers making last-minute checks of the capsule — painted red, blue and white, the colors of Chile’s flag — and hoisting it up on a yellow crane.
Florencio Avalos, 31, will be the first miner to be rescued, his mother told Reuters, citing officials. Married with two children, Florencio has been trapped along with his brother, 29-year-old Renan.
“Right now I’m calm, though still very anxious,” said Jessica Salgado, whose husband Alex is among the miners. “I hope my nerves don’t betray me when the rescue starts.
“The first thing I’m going to do is hug him hard, tell him how much I love him and how I’ve missed him all this time.”
Officials said all the men volunteered to go last, to ensure that their friends were pulled ahead of them to safety.
Rescuers on Monday successfully tested a capsule, dubbed Phoenix after the mythical bird that rose from the ashes, after reinforcing part of the narrow escape shaft with metal casing to prevent rocks falling and blocking the exit.
Engineers said the final stage of the rescue still had its risks but that the capsule was handling well in the shaft, and they expected a smooth extraction.
Rescuers originally found the men, miraculously all alive, 17 days after the mine’s collapse with a bore hole the width of grapefruit. It then served as an umbilical cord used to pass hydration gels, water and food, as well as letters from their families and soccer videos to keep their spirits up.
The men have set a world record for the length of time workers have survived underground after a mining accident, and have been doing exercises to keep their weight down for their ascent.
Medics say some of the men are psychologically fragile and may struggle with stress for a long time after their rescue.
Pinera, who ordered an overhaul of Chile’s mine safety regulations after the accident, toured the rescue operation on Tuesday, meeting the miners’ families.
“When the first miner emerges safe and sound, which I expect will happen later today, I hope all the bells of all the churches of Chile ring out forcefully, with joy and hope,” the white-haired leader said. “Faith has moved mountains.”
Every Chilean TV station was saturated with coverage of the rescue operation.
“Everyone is following the rescue step by step. We are a Catholic country and we see this as a real miracle,” said Maritza Gonzalez, a 50-year-old housewife in capital city Santiago.
U.S. President Barack Obama said Americans were praying the miners would emerge safely and return to their families soon, and said he was proud of Americans who have been working with the Chileans on the rescue effort.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with the brave miners, their families, and the men and women who have been working so hard to rescue them,” Obama said.
Many relatives held vigils over the past two months at a tent settlement named Camp Hope above the mine, and more people joined as the climax neared.
Noemi Donoso, whose 43-year-old son-in-law Samuel Avalos is among the trapped, sat praying in a tent with four family members, their hands joined together to form a circle, singing hymns and chanting “hallelujah” and “glory to God.”
Her daughter had just left to have her hair done in a makeshift hairdressers in another of the camp’s tents.
“She went to the salon to get fixed up so she can look pretty when she receives him,” Donoso said, as excited school children ran around the camp with face paint on.
Once the evacuations start, it will take 48 hours to extract the men. Rescuers will first be lowered to help the miners prepare to return to the surface.
Each man’s journey through solid rock to safety should take about 12 to 15 minutes. They will have their eyes closed and will be given dark glasses to avoid damaging their eyesight after spending so long in a dimly lit tunnel. They will then be under observation at a nearby hospital for two days.