San Jose Mine (Chile): After a record two months trapped underground in a collapsed Chile mine, 33 miners Friday appeared just days from a miraculous rescue with a deep drill shaft set to reach them within hours.
Government ministers said the shaft could break through to the men within the next 24 hours, with one raising hopes that the first miners could be pulled up to the surface early next week.
"Tuesday, Tuesday," Health Minister Jaime Manalich told reporters outside the San Jose Mine in northern Chile when asked when the operation to bring the men to the top could begin.
The shaft would break through to the miners "within 24 hours overnight or around dawn on Saturday, we cannot be certain about the exact timing," Mines Minister Laurence Golborne said later.
But he cautioned that depending on how engineers decided to shore up the shaft it would still take "three to eight days" before they could start bringing the miners to the surface.
Trapped more than 700 meters (2,300 feet) down since the mine operated by the San Esteban Mining company caved in on August 5, the men have survived longer than any trapped underground before, and their plight has riveted the world.
Initially they were thought to have all perished. Then after two weeks of silence came an extraordinary note, penned in capitals and written with red ink, that gave Chile the miraculous news that the miners were still alive.
"All 33 of us are well inside the shelter," said the note, written by the eldest miner 63-year-old, Mario Gomez, and carried to the surface by a drill bit August 22.
A costly million-dollar rescue operation swung into place, including engineers and mining experts, but also medics and psychiatrists whose job was to help the men cope with their enforced confinement.
Cameras, lowered through small bore holes, have revealed pictures of the men, lit mainly by the lamps on their hard-hats, grimy and dusty and often bare-chested because of the stifling heat.
Most of the men -- 32 Chileans and one Bolivian -- are between 40 and 63, but eight are in their twenties, and 19-year-old Jimmy Sandez has not even graduated from high school.
Now they are celebrities, with the world glued to the twists and turns of their nightmarish ordeal. Friday marked the 65th day of their confinement in a space the size of a living room.
On the surface, the families have maintained a constant and anxious vigil in a makeshift camp dubbed "Camp Hope." Esperanza, or hope, was also the name of a baby girl born while her father was trapped below ground.
Rescuers will now use an Austrian-made hoisting system of pulleys and cranes to lower the rescue cage down the shaft and slowly extract the miners.
"We called it Phoenix because it will be like a rebirth, a new life for the miners," Mining Minister Laurence Golborne told reporters last month.
Engineers say each agonizingly slow trip could take up to 1.5 hours, meaning the entire rescue will last more than 24 hours.
Before the miners come to the surface, at least two people -- a mine rescue expert and a highly trained paramedic -- are set to descend to their shelter to help each miner negotiate the long ride back up to the surface.
It is thought one of the strongest men will test the system first, followed by those deemed to be in the weakest health. Many of the men suffer from skin infections from being in such damp, humid conditions for so long.
Shift supervisor Luis Urzua is likely to wait to last.
Should a miner hit a snag during the ascent, he will be able to lower himself slowly back down to the shelter with the help of wheels on the sides of the cage.
Each miner will be equipped with a helmet, gloves, bottled water, food, and oxygen. There will also be a direct line of communication with the rescuers.
The men have been busy practicing drills to prepare for their evacuation, and they have had lessons on how to cope with the flood of media attention awaiting them on the surface.
And they will also be bringing with them personal items accumulated during their record-breaking ordeal.
In addition to daily supplies of food, medicine and letters, the miners have received many gifts, including a video projector, mini game consoles, books, pictures, rosaries blessed by Pope Benedict XVI, and signed soccer jerseys.
On the surface, medics are preparing to give the miners emergency aid and rush them by helicopter to a hospital in the nearby town of Copiapo.