SAN JOSE MINE, Chile — Chile's trapped miners cheered and embraced Saturday when a drill punched an escape shaft into an underground chamber in a spray of rock and dust on the 66th day of their agonizing entombment, opening the way for rescuers to set plans to begin lifting the men out by midweek.
The government's mining minister said late Saturday that the extraction of the 33 men will probably begin Wednesday, after an inspection revealed that the new hole is mostly strong enough to enable them to escape safely. He said only a stretch at the top will be reinforced with steel pipe.
The completion of the rescue shaft caused bedlam in the tent city known as "Camp Hope," where the miners' relatives have held vigil since a cave-in sealed off the gold and copper mine Aug. 5.
Miners videotaping the drill breaking through a chamber's ceiling 2,041 feet (622 meters) underground could be seen cheering joyfully and hugging each other, the drillers said. At the surface, the rescuers chanted, danced and sprayed champagne so excitedly that some of their hard hats tumbled off.
"On the video, they all started shouting and hugging and celebrating," said James Stefanic, operations manager for the U.S.-Chilean drilling company Geotec.
The success of the escape shaft was a tremendous relief for families of the miners.
"We feel an enormous happiness," said Darwin Contreras, whose brother Pedro, a 26-year-old heavy machine operator, is stuck down below. "Now we just have to wait for them to get out, just a little bit longer now."
Contractor Jeff Hart of Denver, Colorado, operated the drill, pounding through solid rock and the detritus of the collapsed mine, which corkscrews deep below a remote hill in Chile's Atacama desert.
"There is nothing more important than saving – possibly saving – 33 lives. There's no more important job than that," Hart said. "We've done our part, now it's up to them to get the rest of the way out."
While the "Plan A" and "Plan C" drills stalled after repeatedly veering off course, the "Plan B" T130 drill reached the miners at 8:05 a.m. (8:05 a.m. EDT; 1200 GMT), after 33 days of drilling.
The milestone thrilled Chileans, who have come to see the rescue drama as a test of the nation's character and pride.
"What began as a potential tragedy is becoming a verified blessing," President Sebastian Pinera said in a triumphant speech at the La Moneda palace in Santiago. "When we Chileans set aside our legitimate differences and unify in a grand and noble cause, we are capable of great things."
But there is still a lot to do, Mining Minister Laurence Golborne stressed.
"We still haven't rescued anybody," he said. "This rescue won't be over until the last person below leaves this mine."
Video inspections of the shaft gave rescuers enough confidence to reinforce only the first 315 feet (96 meters). The plan is to insert 16 sections of half-inch-thick steel pipe into the top of the hole, which curves like a waterfall at first before becoming nearly vertical for most of its depth. The work would begin immediately, Golborne said.
It's impossible to eliminate any possibility of an accident, but the hole "is in very good condition, and doesn't need to be cased completely," he said.
Golborne and other government officials had insisted that determining whether to encase the whole shaft, only part of it or none of it would be a technical decision, based on the evidence and the expertise of a team of eight geologists and mining engineers.
But the political consequences were inescapable, since Chile's success story would evaporate if a miner should get stuck on the way up for reasons that might have been avoided.
Some miners' families wanted the entire shaft lined with pipe, but some engineers involved said the risk of the capsule getting jammed in the unreinforced hole was less than the risk of the pipes getting jammed and ruining their hard-won exit route.
Many experts doubted whether encasing the entire shaft was even possible.
"Based on my experiences it cannot be done. Nor does it need to be done," Brandon Fisher, president of a U.S. drilling equipment company, told The Associated Press on Saturday.
"The rock is very confident down there," he said.
The miners' anxiety is growing about the rescue, which should take about a day and a half to complete, Health Minister Jaime Manalich said.
Manalich also confirmed that a list had been drawn up suggesting the order in which the 33 miners should be rescued. The final order will be determined by a navy special forces paramedic who will be lowered into the mine to prepare the men for their journey.
When they are brought to the surface, the miners will be initially examined at a field hospital where they'll be allowed to briefly reunite with up to three close relatives.
Then, they'll be flown by helicopter in small groups to the regional hospital in Copiapo, capital city of the region where the mine is located, where 33 fresh beds await and they will be observed for at least 48 hours. Only after their physical and mental health is thoroughly examined will they be allowed to go home.
"I'm very excited, very happy," Guadalupe Alfaro, mother of 26-year-old trapped miner Carlos Bugueno, said as she waved a Chilean flag outside her tent. "I'm very excited, very content. I've wanted so long for this moment, I woke up to live this moment. My son will return soon."
"Our nervousness is gone now," said Juan Sanchez, whose son Jimmy is in the mine. "Only now can we begin to smile."
Associated Press writers Vivian Sequera at the mine and Eva Vergara and Frank Bajak in Copiapo, Chile, contributed to this report.