A horn blast on Saturday announced the completion of a shaft that will serve to rescue 33 miners trapped for two months deep inside a collapsed mine.
Rescue crew workers operating the drill immediately began jumping and embracing once their task was complete.
They were quickly joined by the hundreds of relatives of the miners staying next to the mine at Camp Hope, who exchanged embraces and cheered.
The miners could be out as early as Tuesday, officials said, depending on an engineering assessment on the stability of the shaft.
“This is overwhelming — I can only imagine what my brother must be feeling down there,” Gaston Henriquez, the brother of one of the miners, told AFP as he choked on tears.
“We are very happy, because for the past two months we have suffered enormously. We’ll now wait for them to emerge so we can hug them and bring them home,” said Wilson Avalos, who has two brothers in the mine.
Several enthusiastic people in Camp Hope at the site ran up a hill near the mine and raised 32 Chilean flags and a Bolivian flag, representing the nationality of the trapped miners.
Engineers said they drilled through the last four meters (yards) of rock with special care to avoid tunnel collapses.
Engineers must now decided if they need to decided to reinforce all or part of the shaft walls by inserting giant tubes.
The miners will then be brought up individually in a custom build cage.
One top government official suggested the first miners could be pulled up to the surface early next week.
“Tuesday, Tuesday,” Health Minister Jaime Manalich told reporters outside the San Jose Mine when asked when the operation could begin ahead of the shaft reaching the miners.
A senior engineer also said that, in what could be a risky operation, the miners would have to set off explosives to widen the bottom of the mine so the rescue cage would fit.
“It’s an explosion and that means taking precautions. We have to clear the area so that the shock wave doesn’t reach anyone,” said Andre Sougarret, the engineer in charge.
Journalists and camera crews from around the world had flocked to the mine, hoping to capture the first images of the miners emerging. More than 1,000 reporters are expected to have arrived by the weekend.
“God be willing, in a few days the whole country will be weeping with joy… when we see these miners emerge from the depths of the mountain to embrace their wives, children, mothers and fathers,” said President Sebastian Pinera.
For days after part of the mine collapsed and trapped the miners engineers were convinced that they had all died.
Then after two weeks of silence came an extraordinary note, penned in capital letters and written with red ink, that gave Chile the miraculous news that the miners were still alive.
“All 33 of us are well inside the shelter,” said the note written by the oldest miner, 63-year-old Mario Gomez, and attached to a drill bit which breached their shelter on August 22.
A costly million-dollar rescue operation swung into place, including engineers and mining experts but also medics and psychiatrists whose job was to help the men cope with their enforced confinement.
Cameras lowered through small bore holes revealed pictures of the men, lit mainly by the lamps on their hard-hats, grimy and dusty and often bare-chested because of the stifling heat.
Most of the men are between the ages of 40 and 63, but eight are in their twenties, and 19-year-old Jimmy Sandez has not even graduated from high school.
Saturday marked the 66th day of their confinement in a space the size of a living room.
The miners “have shown signs of anxiety as was to be expected. Others have had higher than desirable increases in blood pressure,” said Manalich, the health minister.
Rescuers will use an Austrian-made hoisting system of pulleys and cranes to lower the rescue cage down the shaft and slowly extract the miners.
Engineers say each agonizingly slow trip could take up to 1.5 hours, meaning the entire rescue could last up to two days.