Rescue workers on Monday reinforced a small drill hole to serve as an umbilical cord to 33 miners found alive 17 days after a cave-in in Chile's far north, and say it will take months to dig them out.
In what relatives dubbed a miracle, the miners on Sunday tied a note to a perforation drill that has carved a shaft the size of a grapefruit down to the refuge they are sheltered in 2,300 ft (700 meters) vertically underground.
The accident in the small gold and copper mine has shone a spotlight on mine safety in Chile, the world's No.1 copper producer, though accidents are rare at major mines and the incident is not seen having a significant impact on the country's output.
Rescue workers now plan to use the tiny bore hole to send plastic tubes containing glucose, hydration gels and food down to the miners to keep them alive while they dig a new shaft to extract them -- which could take up to four months.
"What we have to do is to secure this umbilical cord to stay connected with the miners, to keep them alive," said Andre Sougarret, manager of state copper giant Codelco's El Teniente mine, who is heading up the drilling effort.
He said engineers would coat the sides of the bore-hole and hoped to be able to start sending food and supplies down it on Monday morning. He said the next stage was to choose where to drill a larger hole to extract the miners without risking further cave-ins at the unstable mine.
"Our initial estimate is that it will take 3-4 months (to drill)," Sougarret said.
The miners are 4.5 miles (7 km) inside the winding mine. They are sheltered in a refuge the size of a small apartment.
Water, ventilation saved miners
Tanks of water and ventilation shafts helped the miners to survive, but they had very limited food supplies, and health officials estimate they may have lost about 17.5 to 20 pounds (8 to 9 kg) each.
Rescuers lowered a television camera down the bore-hole on Sunday, and some of the miners looked into the lens. Some had removed their shirts because of the heat in the mine, and officials said they looked in better-than-expected condition.
The miners used the batteries of a truck down in the mine to charge their helmet lamps, some of which were shining in the television images.
"It will take time, but it doesn't matter how long it takes to have a happy ending," beaming President Sebastian Pinera said after flying the mine on Sunday. Pinera has sacked top officials of Chile's mining regulator and vows a major overhaul of the agency in light of the accident.
As night fell on Sunday, jubilant relatives of the trapped miners gathered with rescue workers around bonfires for a barbecue, celebrating with traditional live music and dance as a cold fog enveloped the mine head.
Thousands of Chileans honked their horns across the country on Sunday night, and burst into applause at restaurants when they heard the news.
"This was a 17-day nightmare," said 42-year-old miner Sandro Rojas, whose brother, two cousins and nephew are among those trapped. "When I see my brother, I'm going to tell him I love him and smother him with kisses. To be honest, I don't know if I'll be able to speak I'm so excited."
The government says the San Jose mine, owned by local private company Compania Minera San Esteban Primera, has suffered a series of mishaps and 16 workers were killed in recent years.
The miners' plight has drawn parallels with the story of 16 people who survived more than 72 days in the Andes mountains after a 1972 plane crash. Their story was later made into the Hollywood movie "Alive".
Chile secures lifeline to trapped miners still alive
Rescue workers on Monday reinforced a small drill hole to serve as an umbilical cord to 33 miners found alive 17 days after a cave-in in Chile's far north.