COPIAPO, CHILE - Chilean rescuers were close on Friday to ending the ordeal of 33 miners buried alive for two months deep underground after a cave-in, and could start evacuating them next week in a survival story that has gripped the world.
In one of the most challenging rescue operations in mining history, engineers hope to finish drilling a shaft about half a mile (700 meters) down to the miners by Saturday. But it will still then take days to hoist them to the surface one at a time in special capsules.
Relatives of the trapped miners sang and prayed around a bonfire at the mine-head in Chile's Atacama desert, waving banners and lighting candles for each of the men.
"We are calm. We've already held on for two months. Now we are in the closing stage," said Samuel Avalos, 70, whose son is among the trapped. "We hope it's over."
Mining Minister Laurence Golborne, spearheading the rescue effort, said engineers must still decide how much of the shaft to line with metal tubing before lifting the miners out in the capsules.
Once the escape tunnel is finished, it would take anything from three to 10 days to get the men out, Golborne told reporters at the mine.
Following the Aug. 5 collapse, engineers first bored tiny drill holes the width of a grapefruit to locate the men stuck in a tunnel 2,300 feet (700 meters) below ground - equivalent to 233 stories.
The men were found 17 days after the cave-in, miraculously all still alive, when the miners tied a message to the perforation drill, triggering celebrations across Chile.
Rescuers then used the ducts as umbilical cords to pass the miners high nutrition gels, water, medicine and later solid food to keep them alive.
'CRY AS A NATION'
Trapped for 64 days, the men have set a world record for the length of time workers have survived trapped underground after a mining accident. They are in remarkably good health.
"Hopefully, God willing, in a few days we will be able to cry as a nation in happiness, just as we did when we found out they were alive, when we see them emerge from the depths of the mountain and hug their wives and children," President Sebastian Pinera said.
Pinera's wife, Cecilia Morel, arrived at the mine on Friday afternoon and plans to stay at the settlement called Camp Hope that relatives erected at the mine mouth. She said she would help lend psychological support to the miners' relatives.
Images of the miners caught on a video camera lowered down the drill hole showed them bearded and bare-chested to cope with heat and humidity deep in the small, accident-plagued gold and copper mine in Chile's mining heartland.
The government brought in a team of experts from the U.S. space agency NASA to help keep the men mentally and physically fit during the protracted rescue bid. The men had each lost an estimated 22 pounds (10 kg) during the 2-1/2 weeks before they were found alive.
The miners have been doing exercises and helping clear debris to keep their weight down so that they can fit in the evacuation shaft just two feet (66 cm) in diameter.