SAN JOSE MINE, Chile – SAN JOSE MINE, Chile (AP) — Chile's president said Sunday that his government has done all within its power to rescue 33 miners trapped underground for 47 days and counting, but wouldn't venture a guess as to when they will be pulled out.
Sebastian Pinera spoke as a huge oil industry drill began carving a third escape tunnel that could potentially provide the first way to extricate the men through a half-mile of solid rock.
"Today for the first time we have three machines working simultaneously. We don't know when they will reach them. But we know one thing — with the help of God, they will reach them," Pinera declared after touring the drilling operation and meeting with the miners' families.
"I can assure you we have done everything possible. We have done our best," he said.
Pinera and author Isabel Allende also had a video chat with the miners during which the president held Esperanza — Spanish for Hope — the baby girl born Sept. 14 to the wife of a trapped miner.
The video also shows Allende telling the miners that this weekend in California, where she lives, 33 people were swimming from Alcatraz island to San Francisco, each with a miner's name written on their chests. "If those guys can escape from Alcatraz, you are going to get out of where you are," she reassured them.
The latest drill, a mammoth 150-foot-tall (45-meter) structure, can pound through 60 to 90 feet (20 to 30 meters) of rock a day toward a point nearly 2,000 feet (600 meters) below the surface, not far from the refuge where the men have been staying. And while the other machines must first bore narrower holes and gradually expand their diameter, the Rig 24 can carve a 28-inch-wide shaft — just wide enough to pull a man through — in a single pass.
Once this "Plan C" machine reaches the miners, the rescuers will fortify the walls of the tunnel with iron tubing — 23.5 inches (60 centimeters) in diameter, in 72-foot (24-meter) sections — to prevent it from collapsing around the miners as they are pulled to the surface. Casing the tunnel alone will take eight days, rescue coordinator Andre Sougarret explained.
So if all goes well and there are no delays, this largest drill could enable the miners to begin their escape Oct. 18.
But neither Pinera nor Mining Minister Laurence Golborne would discuss dates.
"We have to be very conservative," Golborne said.
He noted that the third drill was assembled in 19 days, two ahead of schedule. "We are making small advances, but we do not want to generate too many expectations. ... It is scheduled to end the beginning of November, but if we can do it better, we will do it."
Golborne, who accepted a letter the families had hoped to deliver to the president, said he would meet with them to consider their demands for financial and medical help. In all, more than 300 employees of San Esteban mining company have been out of work since the Aug. 5 collapse, and they fear they won't be paid if the company goes bankrupt. A company official told the employees that it has only enough money to pay them through October, according to Evelyn Olmos, a paramedic in the mines who serves as a union president.
"We are stuck in the unknown," Olmos said.
The unions want the government to pay their salaries and benefits for now, give them career training and help in getting new jobs and provide medical exams for the silicosis and other work-related illnesses many miners suffer. She estimated the demands would cost roughly $1.2 million — a fraction of the cost of the rescue.
Golborne said the company hasn't declared bankruptcy yet, and promised that the government will support the miners in the end. But he also said the miners are among 600,000 unemployed Chileans, and "the needs of people in this country are immense."
To that, Olmos had a simple retort: "We are NOT unemployed."
The trapped miners, whose work includes clearing two cubic meters of rocks an hour from the "Plan B" escape tunnel, are in a very positive mood, "without anger or rage," Claudio Ibanez, a psychologist who specializes in tending to people in extreme conditions, told The Associated Press.
Ibanez is part of a team of six psychologists who speak with the miners by videoconference twice daily. "The worst is now over, and they know it," he said. "To have made it this far "obviously works in their favor."
Associated Press Writer Vivian Sequera contributed to this report.