chilean jubilant.jpgRescue workers on Monday reinforced a small drill hole to serve as an umbilical cord to 33 miners found alive 17 days after a cave-in in Chile’s far north, and say it will take months to dig them out.

 

In what relatives dubbed a miracle, the miners on Sunday tied a note to a perforation drill that has carved a shaft the size of a grapefruit down to the refuge they are sheltered in 700 metres vertically underground.

 

Although accidents are rare at major mines and the incident is not seen having a significant impact on the country’s output, the accident in the small gold and copper mine has shone a spotlight on mine safety in Chile, the world’s No.1 copper producer.

 

Rescue workers now plan to use the tiny bore hole to send plastic tubes containing glucose, hydration gels and food down to the miners to keep them alive while they dig a new shaft to extract them, which could take up to four months.

 

“What we have to do is to secure this umbilical cord to stay connected with the miners, to keep them alive,” said Andre Sougarret, manager of state copper giant, Codelco’s El Teniente mine, who is heading up the drilling effort.

 

He said engineers would coat the sides of the bore-hole and hoped to be able to start sending food and supplies down it on Monday morning. He said the next stage was to choose where to drill a larger hole to extract the miners without risking further cave-ins at the unstable mine.

 

“Our initial estimate is that it will take 3-4 months (to drill),” Sougarret said.

 

The miners are 7 km inside the winding mine and are sheltered in a refuge the size of a small apartment.

 

Tanks of water and ventilation shafts helped the miners to survive, but they had very limited food supplies, and health officials estimate they may have lost about 8 to 9 kilogrammes each.

 

“It will take time, but it doesn’t matter how long it takes to have a happy ending,” beaming President Sebastian Pinera said after flying the mine on Sunday. Pinera has sacked top officials of Chile’s mining regulator and vows a major overhaul of the agency in light of the accident.