The rescue of 33 miners from 622 metres underground in northern Chile started Tuesday, but it was not easy to reach this stage.

The miners have been trapped since a shaft at the San Jose copper mine collapsed on August 5. They had no contact with the outside world for the first 17 days after the accident, eating a spoonful of tuna and a gulp of milk once a day.

The rock below the Atacama Desert was hard, rich in silica, and was not always stable. While rescue teams searched for the missing miners, a second collapse forced them to start over.

Seven drills sounded the terrain for days in a desperate effort to locate the miners.

Just as most people feared that the miners would never be rescued dead or alive, the probes found the workers on August 22.

In all, three narrow shafts reached the area where the miners were trapped. Eventually, these shafts carried down “palomas” or pigeons -- 1.5-metre-long, 10-centimetre-wide capsules which carried food, clothes and other supplies to keep the miners alive, and healthy as they awaited a rescue.

At first, they would told it would be December before shafts could be drilled large enough to accommodate them.

One of the early drills regularly used in mining, a Schramm T-130 model, eventually won the race among three large drills to the rescue platform 622 metres deep.

The US space agency NASA sent experts -- who normally coach astronauts on long missions in space -- to help the miners cope with their isolation and confinement.

The NASA team helped Chilean authorities adapt astronaut nutrition plans for the miners, including the liquid diet in the final day before the rescue. Fluids rich in potassium were given to keep up blood pressure in the perilous ascent to the surface.

Eventually, electric, telephone and television lines were sent down to the miners. They got physical and psychological training to prepare for the rescue, and several were even required to lose weight to fit into the narrow rescue capsule.

The men were even briefed on how to handle the media and conduct themselves in interviews that were sure to be sought from them on the surface.

The Chilean Navy shipyards built three capsules, dubbed Phoenix after the mythical bird that rose from the ashes. The miners are being hauled one by one to the surface. The modules, complete with oxygen supplies and communication lines, were hoisted on a large winch wheel. Shock-absorbing wheels on the sides protected the capsule from hard knocks against the shaft wall.

Engineers from Chilean mining giant Codelco and the Chilean Navy worked out every detail in advance, and two rescuers were the first to join the miners underground to provide assistance before they started up the shaft.

The first descent with a rescuer late Tuesday took 20 minutes, but the first ascent with a miner was shorter, about 17 minutes. The miners were given sunglasses to protect their eyes from unaccustomed light -- even against the glare of the nightime bright lining at the rescue site.

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