Chile mine rescue might restart if broken drill bit can't be removed; Hope to arrive Tuesday

SANTIAGO, Chile (AP) — When the drilling stops, the 33 miners who have been trapped underground for weeks in northern Chile notice. And they are not pleased about the progress above.

On Monday only one of three drilling efforts was operational — the so-called Plan A drill, reaching down to 750 feet (230 meters). But it too must stop at 820 feet (250 meters), for maintenance work. Plan B, a higher-velocity drill that will carve out a narrower escape tunnel, has been silenced since last week, when it struck an iron support beam for the mine and its drill bit shattered into small pieces. A third drill, Plan C, is still days away from starting its work.

Rescuers have already tried three times to use magnets to remove pieces of the shattered second drill and iron beam from the hole. If a fourth effort also fails, Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said Monday, then the second drill will have to be moved and start digging an entirely new hole.

The setback has caused anxiety among the men trapped by a mine collapse, who had been cheered by the sound of the constant hammering of the second drill as it bored through solid rock.

In talks with their families over a fiber-optic line rescuers dropped through one of the narrow bore-holes, they demanded explanations from authorities, who have struggled to strike a balance between can-do optimism and the reality that the miners may remain stuck a half-mile below ground for months.

"We told them that we're thinking about staging a protest or some other pressure tactic if they don't show us more progress," said Maria Segovia, whose brother is trapped down below.

With frustration growing, so is pressure for alternative solutions. But the rescue team on Monday quickly rejected a "plan D" proposed by Miguel Fort, the mining engineer who led the rescue effort immediately after the Aug. 5 mine collapse.

Fort sent an e-mail to Golborne Sunday night asking for authorization to descend to the point where the main shaft collapsed and analyze its stability. If the conditions are right, he suggested, dynamite might be used to blast a passage open.

"As a rescuer, I have to look for quicker options," Fort said.

But his idea was rejected in part because large areas of the mine are thought to be so unstable that they could collapse again at any moment.

Engineer Rene Aguilar, who is now coordinating the effort, called it an unworkable option because the rock falls were so extensive that there no longer is any way to reach the area that would have to be blasted.

"The mine rescue alternative is not viable," Aguilar said. "There is an enormous block of 700,000 tons which is very unstable, so ... entering the mine (through the main entrance) implies a danger for the lives of the people who want to carry out that operation."

About 25 families are still holding vigil in a tent camp outside the mine in the Atacama desert, and many more are anxiously following every development in the rescue effort. By Tuesday, one more will join this community — and her name will be Esperanza, Spanish for Hope.

The first child of miner Ariel Tiscona and his wife Elizabeth Segovia is expected to be born by cesarean section on Tuesday. Tiscona had hoped to assist the birth of the girl, whom they initially planned to name Carolina. He asked his wife to name her Esperanza instead — and to have someone videotape it for him.