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As rescue drill nears, miners in Chile still have long way to go

By Patrick Oppmann, CNN
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Rescuers inch closer to trapped miners
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Miners' families have waited more than 60 days for their rescue
  • Once a drill reaches the miners, the rescue operation enters its most dangerous phase
  • A rescue capsule will be equipped with oxygen and communications equipment
  • A trainer is preparing the miners using the same workout routine combat pilots follow

Copiapo, Chile (CNN) -- With 160 meters to go until the Plan B drill reaches 33 trapped miners, a breakthrough to the men may be imminent.

Then what?

At Camp Hope, the makeshift tent city where hundreds of family members are living, widespread celebrations will likely break out as the miners' loved ones receive news they have waited for more than 60 days to hear.

But despite any euphoria, the rescue operation will be entering its most dangerous phase for the men.

Chilean Mining Minister Laurence Golborne made clear to reporters Saturday that the operation can only be called a success if all the men are rescued from the mine safely.

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"We haven't rescued anyone here," Golborne said. "We have to be very conservative, nothing is finished."

Officials said they expect to have the men above ground between October 15 and October 30.

If the Plan B drill reaches the 624 meters (2,047 feet) to the trapped men, the miners will be closer than ever to freedom. But they will still have a long way to go before their actual rescue.

Officials said they are still considering whether to line the completed mine shaft with steel casing. The operation would call for reinforcing the 70-centimeter (28-inch) hole with 26 steel tubes, each 24 meters (79 feet) in height. The casing would also provide a buffer between the mine walls and rescue capsules.

State engineer Rene Aguilar said that the casing would require days more work for rescuers. On Plans A and B, platforms would have to be built over the drills. That would not be necessary for Plan C, an oil drilling platform. Then a 400-ton winch would be moved into place to begin casing the hole.

The casing of the hole would take a total of about eight days to put in place and implement, Andre Sougarret, chief of the rescue operation, told reporters Monday.

But officials said they are still not convinced whether the casing the entire hole will be necessary. Sougarret said rescuers may only need to put the casing in the upper 100 meters of the hole.

"The rock there is broken," Sougarret said. "It needs to be cased."

A camera will be sent down the hole after it's drilled to inspect the integrity of the full length of the shaft to help officials decide whether to case the entire path to the miners.

Even if more than one drill reaches the mine, officials said they only plan to use a single opening in the rescue. The second drill hole would serve as a backup if anything were to go wrong with the rescue, Sougarret said. The miners will then be plucked one at a time from their underground prison by way of a rescue capsule.

Dubbed "The Phoenix," the capsule will be equipped with an oxygen supply, communications equipment, retractable wheels to help it travel up the rescue shaft and an escape hatch in case anything goes wrong.

Rescue officials said the capsule will use wired communication with the surface, since wireless contact could fail in the mine's depths.

The capsule weighs in at 420 kilograms (924 pounds) and its interior height is 6 feet 4 inches (1.9 meters). The diameter of the capsule is a mere 54 centimeters (21 inches), a tight squeeze for some of the men. Two more capsules are expect to arrive at the mine site this week.

Explore the Chilean mine collapse

A trainer brought to the mine site to help the miners slim down and condition themselves for the rescue says they will all fit inside.

"Some of them have lost close to 20 pounds," said Dr. Jean Romagnoli.

When the rescue takes place it could take each miner more than an hour to get to the surface. Romagnoli said each miner will have to spend at least half an hour standing in the capsule. His training, he said, is now focused on strengthening the miners' legs and follows the workouts that combat pilots receive to compensate for the stresses of flying at high speeds.

"The blood tends to stay in your lower limbs for long periods of time," Romagnoli said, which could cause "fainting due to diminished brain irrigation."

But the doctor said he believes all the men are ready physically and psychologically.

After the hole is drilled, officials said as a test the capsule will be lowered part of the way down, while still empty. Then a navy commando and a highly experienced paramedic will be lowered to the mine's floor to begin the rescue operation.

On Monday, officials said they had not decided the order in which the men would be brought to the surface, but it will be based on their physical condition. The healthiest men, requiring the least time and help for their ascent, would go first, Sougarret said.

But he denied that a list had been finalized.

"The order will depend on their physical and mental state at the time of the rescue," he said.

Once on the surface, the miners will be taken to a field hospital, set up near the extraction hole and be given antibiotics, intravenous fluids and an eye check. Officials have said a live picture of the rescue will be provided to the hundreds of media organizations covering the rescue from the mine site.

Trucks carrying the field hospital arrived at the mine on Saturday.

After an initial examination and triage, they will be transferred to an observation area within the mine complex, where they will have their first reunion with "one or two family members," Chilean Health Minister Jaime Manalich said last month.

Once all the miners are extracted, Manalich said they will be flown by helicopter to Copiapo Regional Hospital, a 15-minute flight. Three helicopter pads have been bulldozed in recent days, high in the hills overlooking the drill sites

Manalich said each of the miners will be kept at the hospital "without exception" for a minimum of two days for stabilization and observation.

The most immediate risk to the miners, Manalich said, would be the possibility of damage to their retinas, as they face bright sunlight after weeks underground.

Medics also will immunize the miners against common germs on the surface, which they have not been exposed to recently, he said.

Officials have also said the men could suffer from post-traumatic stress after their ordeal and record length of time spent underground finally ends.

CNN's Karl Penhaul contributed to this report.

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