By Patricia Abramovich
SAN JOSE MINE, Chile, Oct 10, 2010 (AFP) - Engineers Sunday rushed to reinforce a shaft through which to hoist 33 men trapped over two months down a mine in Chile, as the men below argued over who should be let up first.
"I would like to illustrate what they are going through today with a conversation we had yesterday," Health Minister Jaime Manalich told a press conference near the San Jose mine.
"I questioned them and mentioned we were working on an order in which they would be brought out. I said the order would be determined by technical factors.
"And what was their reaction? 'Mr. Minister, that's fine but I want to go last please.' And then another guy said, 'No, my friend, I said that I was going to be the last one up.' 'No, no, really - I want to go last, please,' another guy started saying."
By being able to put aside their needs and wanting their colleagues to have a chance at freedom and fresh air first, "they have had a really commendable spirit, of solidarity and commitment to their friends," Manalich stressed.
As to their health condition, the minister said they were in "very good shape. The people at the bottom of the mine were healthy people the day of the accident."
In addition "they are mature people and very self-sufficient people, who have been able to face a test the likes of which probably no one has in human history," Manalich said.
The miners will begin a special liquid diet about 12 hours ahead of the rescue operation expected to start Wednesday.The aim is to reduce any nausea and vomiting during their removal from the depths of the mine, while still keeping up their caloric intake.
Engineers meanwhile were reinforcing the shaft that will be used to finally free the men.
Gerardo Jofre, head of the board of Chile's state copper giant Codelco, maintained that the rescue operation has put Chile unwittingly yet so far successfully at the forefront of such mining rescue operations.
"The technology we have used in the digging and building the access to the miners are really on the cutting edge because these technologies never had been used at such great depths or for these objectives," Jofre said. "This is a landmark in mining worldwide in terms of rescue operations."
Saturday, rescuers announced they had completed a 622-meter (2,040-foot) deep shaft through to the emergency shelter where the men have survived since the August 5 collapse at the gold and copper mine in northern Chile.
Mining Minister Laurence Golborne told reporters the men could begin the ascent, one by one, on Wednesday. An additional 48 hours are needed to install the metal cage and the complex pulley system for lowering it to the miners and lifting them out.
The first group of miners to exit will be several of the strongest men, followed by a group considered the weakest due to chronic health problems like high blood pressure or lung ailments, and ending with more of the stronger ones, officials said.
If the timetable holds, all the miners could expect to end their ordeal of nearly two and half months by Friday.
They have been trapped deep beneath the desert floor after a partial collapse that blocked the mine exit, surviving longer than anyone has before under similar circumstances.
For weeks the men were feared dead. But on August 22 they attached a note to a drill bit that had broken through to the chamber where they had taken shelter, saying they were all alive, well and awaiting rescue.
Hundreds of journalists and camera crews from around the world have converged on the mine, hoping to capture the first images of the miners at the surface.