Copiapo: Rescuers successfully tested a capsule to hoist Chile`s 33 trapped miners to freedom and aim to start evacuating them on Tuesday night after a two-month ordeal that has gripped the world`s imagination.
The specially designed bullet-shaped cage was lowered almost the entire length of the escape shaft without a hitch, Mining Minister Laurence Golborne told reporters.
Once the evacuations start, at midnight on Tuesday (0300 GMT Wednesday), it will take 48 hours to hoist the men up from inside the caved-in mine half a mile underground, he said.
Four rescuers will be lowered to help the miners prepare to return to the surface from the darkness of the tunnel they have been trapped in since the August 05 collapse at the gold and copper mine in the Atacama desert.
"I`m not nervous yet but I will be big-time when it`s my turn (to come up)," 19-year-old Jimmy Sanches, the youngest miner, wrote in a letter sent up on Monday. "When I get out I want to see my daughter and shout to the four winds."
His sister-in-law Roxana Avalos said the family was preparing a party for him. "Around 500 people are coming," she said.
Rescue workers finished reinforcing the escape shaft on Monday morning. Engineers decided to line only part of the narrow, nearly 2,050 foot-long (625-meter) shaft with metal tubes, aiming to avoid any last-minute disaster.
Rescuers installed the tubes to diminish the risk of rocks breaking off the walls of the drill shaft and blocking the exit of the capsule, dubbed the "Phoenix" after the mythical bird reborn from its ashes.
"The results of the tests have been very promising, very positive," Golborne told reporters at the mine. "The capsule handles well inside the duct and adapts well both inside the metal tubes and the rock."
President Sebastian Pinera, who has ordered a revamp of mine safety regulations in the wake of the accident, plans to visit the mine on Tuesday. One of the 33 miners is a Bolivian national and Bolivian President Evo Morales has vowed to visit the mine for his rescue.
"It will be a true rebirth, not just for the 33 miners but also for the spirit of unity, strength, faith and hope they have shown our country and the world," Pinera said during a visit to Ecuador on Monday.
Rescue officials said they would push ahead boring a separate shaft with a rig usually used to drill for oil as a back-up plan. They have halted a third drill.
In a country still recovering from a devastating February earthquake, celebrations broke out across Chile when the drill boring the escape shaft reached the miners on Saturday.
Prayers, vigils, waiting
More relatives of the miners arrived at the settlement known as "Camp Hope" near the mine entrance on Monday morning as they count down the hours amid growing anticipation.
"I`m so tired. It`s been far too many days doing nothing, just sitting waiting," Alicia Campos, whose son Daniel Herrera is among the trapped miners, said as she lined up for a fish sandwich at the tent settlement.
She wants her son to take up another profession.
After weeks of prayers, vigils and agonising waiting, anxiety is giving way to joy as wives, parents and children count down to reunions with their loved ones.
Surprises await the miners on the surface. They have been invited to Spain to watch a Real Madrid soccer game and to Britain to see Manchester United play. They also have been promised a free week-long vacation in the Greek islands and have been given USD 10,000 each by a flamboyant singer-turned-mining magnate.
The men, who have set a world record for the length of time workers have survived underground after a mining accident, are doing exercises to keep their weight down for their ascent.
Health Minister Jaime Manalich said the men would fast for the last few hours before entering the capsules, which are just wider than a man`s shoulders, and would wear a special corset to help monitor and control their blood pressure.
The journey to the surface should take about 12 to 15 minutes a man. The miners will have their eyes closed and will immediately be given dark glasses to avoid damaging their eyesight after spending so long in a dimly lit tunnel.
They will be given medical checks in a field hospital set up at the mine. Then they will be able to spend some time with their families before being flown by helicopter to nearby Copiapo to another hospital.
The miners are in remarkably good health, although some have developed skin infections.
Manalich said four rescuers, including two paramedics, would travel down in the capsules to help prepare the men for their journey to freedom.
He said the government had chosen the most psychologically stable and experienced of the miners to be the first to enter the capsules and face the harrowing, claustrophobic journey.
"They have to be psychologically mature, have a great deal of mining experience and be able to handle a quick training on how to use the harness and oxygen mask in the Phoenix capsule," Manalich said.
The government brought in experts from NASA, the US space agency, to help keep the men mentally and physically fit during the ordeal, which has gripped the world and drawn messages of support from Pope Benedict and World Cup soccer stars.