Copiapo: The owners of a Chilean mine which collapsed early this month, trapping 33 men underground, asked forgiveness on Tuesday for the accident, as a giant drill slowly bored through the earth to rescue the miners.
"The pain caused by this unwanted and unforeseen situation means we must ask forgiveness for the anguish being felt at this time," Alejandro Bohn, co-chief of the mining group San Esteban, told a parliamentary mining committee looking into the drama.
"This is a terrible situation, and we hope that it will soon come to a happy end," he added in televised remarks.
Rescuers say it will take three to four months for the 30-ton hydraulic drill to chew through the 700 meters (2,300 feet) of rock entombing the miners, who were trapped by a cave-in 26 days ago on August 5.
The machine, an Australian-made Strata 950, had a maximum excavation rate of 15-20 meters (50-65 feet) a day. It will first bore a 33-centimeter (13-inch) pilot hole, then make that twice as wide so the men can be pulled up through it, one by one.
The miners will have to work, too, clearing away tons of debris as it falls into the gallery below where they are sheltering, officials said.
One of the engineers overseeing the rescue, Jorge Sanhueza, told AFP late Tuesday the drill had burrowed down just five meters so far, because the initial phase required "high precision" to get the trajectory right.
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera said the operation was well under way and his government "has done and will continue to do everything humanly possible to rescue them alive."
He added that another bore was on its way to expand one of three fist-sized holes already drilled to drop supplies the men, as a back-up plan in case the Strata 950 encountered problems.
Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said the men had moved camp away from a shelter in the tunnel to a drier spot about 300 meters deeper inside the mine because some were developing fungal infections and body sores in the hot, dank area.
Authorities have started vaccinating the miners against tetanus, diphtheria, flu and pneumonia to prevent outbreaks of disease.
The miners, who were found alive August 22, have located four sources of water, two of which have been deemed fit for human consumption.
The men have been able to shave and get a change of clothes. Smokers have been denied cigarettes, but given nicotine patches to help them cope with withdrawal symptoms.
Families sleeping at the entrance to the mine, in "Camp Hope," spoke to their trapped loved ones for the first time Sunday through a radio-telephone link.
"His voice is the same. He`s not good but not so bad either," Alicia Campos said after speaking to her son Daniel Herrero.
One miner, Esteban Rojas, reaffirmed a promise to wed his civil-joined wife Jessica Yanez in a church ceremony, prompting her to laugh: "I wanted to hear him say it because I thought he had forgotten."
The drilling of the rescue shaft was taking place at a site restricted to media, which have been broadcasting the drama to the world.
The process, which began late Monday, was painstaking and delicate, with precautions being taken to try to make sure it did not trigger another collapse in the unstable mine.
When the moment comes to extract the men, they will be hauled up in a special bullet cage at night and blindfolded to protect their eyes after such a prolonged period living with just lamps for illumination.
They will also wear specially designed clothing to protect them from thermal shock after living in extremely hot, humid and cramped conditions.