By Kerry Sanders, NBC News Correspondent
COPIAPO, Chile – The 33 miners who are trapped in a Chilean gold and copper mine marked off Day 60 on Monday as their families keep an anxious vigil on the surface.
One of them, Alfonso Avalos, says he’s feeling useless. The 52-year-old miner wants to dig, he wants to help his trapped sons – but all he can do is wait around, a half mile above the collapsed mine.
Alfonso and his family sit idle in the Atacama Desert. They occasionally smile when they share stories about Florenzio Avalos, 31, and Renan Avalos, 29.
To better understand what the miners face in their daily jobs, Alfonso and his brother, Wilson, 37, invited me to visit the nearby Clara Mine, which was closed about a year ago when the gold yield was considered too limited to support an expensive digging operation.
They led me through the cave entrance and in less than 10 minutes, I could no longer see any light from the surface. The only light came from our head-lamps.
The tunnel down was tall enough for a truck to drive down and wide enough for two vehicles to pass. We carefully walked down a 30-degree slope, and while the path was relatively clear, there were a lot of rocks that would be easy to trip over. High above us, perhaps as tall as the second story of a house, I could see thin stalactites dripping droplets of mineral water.
A photo of Florenzio Avalos, 31, one of the trapped miners. His father Alfonso Avalos is praying for his safety and hopes he does not return to work in the mines if he survives.
As we walked down about a mile, Alfonso told me that it was the first time in his career that he felt nervous being inside a mine. And he’s worried about his sons, once they are again above ground.
“I don’t want them to ever go back into a mine,” he said.
Miners live by a code: Do not talk about the dangers of the job because that could bring bad luck. But with this disaster, that code has now been broken.
Alfonso said among the family, his sons used to would quietly complain to him that the mine was unsafe. He added, “They would tell me they tell their bosses but no one listens.”
And the reason they kept working? “Ah, the money! These are good paying jobs and without an education, there’s not much else we can do.”
A race to reach the miners
Meantime, the drilling efforts have moved closer to the trapped men as three engineering teams use three different approaches.
Team A includes engineers from South Africa; Team B has some Americans; and Team C has Canadians.
The South African team is closest, a mere 396 feet away as of Monday.
But the operation is now on hold until Wednesday as the drill bit has dulled, and the replacement part won’t be ready until mid-week.
Photo by Jim Craven/ NBC News
An inside look at the Clara Mine, a former gold mine that is near the San Jose Mine where 33 miners have been trapped for 60 days.
That leaves the Americans most likely to punch a 28-inch wide shaft to the men first. They’re now 465 feet away.
Unlike the other two teams, the U.S. already has a so-called pilot hole down to the men. First they drilled a 5 inch-wide shaft. Then it was opened to 12 inches. Now the engineers are creating a 28-inch-wide-hole which will be just big enough for the escape capsules to navigate.
As the U.S. team drills down, upwards of 20 tons of rock is falling in on the trapped miners. They’re working in three 11-man shifts to clear that debris, in effect working to save their own lives.
One question yet to be answered: Will the hole that is ultimately used require a sleeve? The initial thoughts were to link a pipe down the hole, and as the pipe went in, grease the inside for the capsules trips up and down.
But now some say that will delay the rescue by as much as 11days. And since the drilled holes are not direct, some pipes will have to be fashioned in unique shapes to accommodate the curves.
And then there’s the whispered political pressure to get the job done. Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera has an important meeting in Europe in mid-October, and rescue crews here say they’ve been told the president wants to personally witness the rescue before he leaves.
No one would be happier if the rescue happens sooner than later than the families of waiting to come to the surface.