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Miners on brink of rescue in Chile

SAN JOSE MINE, Chile — They'll come up one by one in green overalls bearing their names on their chests — first the fittest, then the weakest, twisting in a steel cage that proved itself with four test runs deep into the earth.

The dramatic endgame hastened Monday for the 33 Chilean miners who have braved two months underground, with rescuers reinforcing the escape shaft and the 13-foot-tall rescue chamber sliding, as planned, nearly all the way to the trapped men.

"It didn't even raise any dust," Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said.

If all goes well, everything will be in place late tonight to begin pulling the men out, officials said. The lead psychologist for the rescue team recommended the extractions begin at dawn Wednesday, but no official decision had been made.

On Monday, the Phoenix I capsule — the biggest of three built by Chilean navy engineers — made its first test run after the top 180 feet of the shaft was encased in tubing, the rescue leader said.

Then the empty capsule was winched 2,000 feet, just 40 feet short of the shaft system that has been the miners' refuge since an Aug. 5 collapse.

"We didn't send it (all the way) down because we could risk that someone will jump in," a grinning Golborne said.

Engineers had planned to extend the piping nearly twice as far, but they decided to stop after the sleeve jammed during a probe. The hole is angled 11 degrees off vertical at its top before plumbing down, like a waterfall.

Rescue team psychologist Alberto Iturra said he recommended the first man be pulled out at dawn because the miners are to be taken by Chilean air force helicopters to the nearby city of Copiapo and fog tends to enshroud the mine at night.

It is a roughly 10-minute flight, said Lt. Col. Aldo Carbone, the choppers' squadron commander. He said the pilots have night-vision goggles but will not fly unless it is clear. Ambulances will be ready for backup. The drive would take about an hour.

Officials have drawn up a secret list of which miners should come out first, but the order could change after paramedics and a mining expert first descend in the capsule to evaluate the men and oversee the journey upward.

First out will be the four fittest of frame and mind, said health minister Jaime Manalich. Should glitches occur, these men will be best prepared to ride them out and tell their comrades what to expect.

Next will be 10 who are weakest or ill. One miner suffers from hypertension. Another is a diabetic, and others have dental and respiratory infections or skin lesions from the mine's oppressive humidity.

The last out is expected to be Luiz Urzua, who was shift chief when the men became entombed, several family members of miners told the AP, speaking on condition of anonymity because they did not want to upset government officials.

The men will take a twisting, 20-minute ride for 2,041 feet up to the surface. It should take about an hour for the rescue capsule to make a round trip.

Golborne said all would be ready by 12:01 a.m. Wednesday. Officials wanted to make sure the concrete around the steel tubing at the top of the shaft set, he said.

After being extracted, the miners will be ushered through inflatable tunnels, like the ones used in sports stadiums, to ambulances that will take them to a triage station. Once cleared by doctors there, they are to be taken to another area where they'll be reunited with one to three family members chosen by each miner.

After the reunion, the miner will be driven to a heliport for the flight to Copiapo.

Iturra, who has tightly managed the miners' underground lives to keep them fit and busy, turned his attention Monday to their families. Just as the miners will need time to adjust once they have surfaced, so will their families, he said.

Iturra recommended they leave the tent city where they have kept vigil, which is increasingly besieged by journalists.

"They need to get their feet firmly back on the ground as well," he said. "That's why I sent them home to sleep."

As trying as it has been for the miners to survive underground for 68 days, the mine is at least terra cognita. Out of the shaft, they will face challenges so bewildering that no amount of coaching can fully prepare them.

They will be celebrated at first, embraced by their families and pursued by reporters, magnets for a world intensely curious to hear their survival story. They have been invited to visit presidential palaces, take all-expenses-paid vacations and appear on countless TV shows.

Contracts for book and movie deals are pending, along with job offers.

For the loved ones awaiting the miners, news that the rescue tunnel was nearly ready brought a mixture of joy and anxiety.

Maria Segovia, whose 48-year-old brother, Dario, is among those trapped, said that when he is finally out, "I'll tell him I love him, that I'm very proud of you." Then, she said, smiling, "I'll kick his backside" so he never goes into a mine again.

Chile's government has promised each miner at least six months of psychological support, in part to deal with the sudden fame.

The miners' psychological support team was designed mostly to help them endure the extreme conditions. They have also received training to deal with the media, told they need not answer every intrusive question.

Already, relations within and between their families have become strained as some seem to be getting more money and attention than others.

A philanthropic Chilean mining executive, Leonardo Farkas, gave $10,000 checks in the miners' names to each of the 33 families, and set up a fund to collect donations. Co-workers who weren't trapped, but were left out of a job — including some who narrowly escaped getting crushed in the collapse — wonder whether they will be taken care of, too.

Miners on brink of rescue in Chile 10/11/10 [Last modified: Monday, October 11, 2010 11:34pm]

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