UPDATE: Chilean Mine rescue will not be quick - Minister Alonso Soto
Rescuers have started drilling small holes deep inside the mine in a bid to rescue 33 trapped miners but, Chile's mining minister says the effort could take more than a week after they faced a major setback on Saturday
Posted: Monday , 09 Aug 2010
COPIAPO, Chile (Reuters) -
COPIAPO, Chile (Reuters) - Rescuers started drilling small holes deep inside a mine in northern Chile on Sunday in a bid to rescue 33 miners trapped for three days, and the mining minister said the effort could take more than a week.
Rescuers faced a major setback on Saturday when a fresh collapse blocked the ventilation shaft rescue workers were descending. No contact has been made with the miners, trapped since Thursday 4.5 miles (7 km) inside the winding mine, and around 900 feet (300 metres) vertically underground.
Mining Minister Laurence Golborne, who is in Copiapo overseeing the rescue bid, said workers had begun drilling smaller shafts but that it could take "probably more than a week" to reach the area where the miners were believed to be.
"The fact is that in the short term reaching these people directly does not seem viable," he said, adding that authorities were also considering digging a tunnel in addition to the smaller shafts.
Authorities hope the miners have reached an underground shelter with oxygen and are rationing food and water.
Rescuers aim to find the miners and then pass fresh supplies of water and food and communication lines down a narrow drill hole until experts find a way to extract them from the small gold and copper mine.
Workers used mechanical diggers to clear a path for a drilling rig to enter the mine, and they were also trying to clear areas that were caved-in along the main mine ramp underground and the ventilation shaft.
"I personally promised the families of the trapped miners the rescue operations will continue with all the strength in the world," President Sebastian Pinera said on Sunday at the presidential palace in the capital, Santiago, a day after meeting miners' relatives at the mine.
"Unfortunately it is not easy," he added. "I also pledged to thoroughly investigate, establish where responsibility lies, and punish accordingly."
Rescuers face a race against time to reach the miners, who, if they reached the shelter, are huddled in a space the size of a small apartment.
The San Jose mine, which belongs to local private company Compania Minera San Esteban Primera, was shut down by the accident. It is one of three adjacent sites producing a combined 1,200 metric tonnes of refined copper annually.
The closure is not expected to hurt copper output in Chile, the world's No.1 copper producer. Major mining accidents are uncommon in the country, because authorities keep strict controls over operations.
Anguished relatives, who spent a second night at the mouth of the mine around a bonfire, wailed when they heard news of the fresh collapse on Saturday.
They later calmed down when they were told the mine had not collapsed entirely and rescue efforts would continue, though several then tried to storm the mine entrance and scuffled briefly with police, calling company officials "murderers".
"We're still optimistic. I know it may sound hard to believe, but we can't lose hope," said Pedro Contreras, 37, a school bus driver whose nephew is trapped in the mine, 450 miles (725 km) north of Santiago.
Local union official Felix Medina said conditions at many smaller mines in the area were precarious. He said the San Jose mine, which employs 150 people, has a recent history of accidents, with 13 fatalities on site and three deaths on the road to Copiapo.
The mine lacks escape routes and was closed in 2005 by workers because of bad conditions, he added. It was reopened two years ago. (Writing by Simon Gardner and Eduardo Garcia; Editing by Paul Simao)
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