Two men trapped in an Australian gold mine for a week will likely be freed without major medical problems, a rescue official said Tuesday, as authorities prepared to begin boring through tons of collapsed rock.
Rescuers decided to end the drilling and blasting method late Monday because of the risk of triggering another fatal cave-in at the century-old Beaconsfield Gold Mine in Tasmania state, where miners Brant Webb, 37, and Todd Russell, 34, have been trapped in cramped conditions almost 3,000 feet underground since April 25.
Rescuers managed to reach the pair with a narrow pipe late Monday and pumped through the first fresh water and food the miners' had received in six days, after a small earthquake triggered a rock collapse that sealed the men in and killed one of their workmates.
Heat packs, fresh batteries for the men's helmet lamps and reading material were also sent down, as well as blankets and dry clothing, officials said.
And a union official said they were even able to stretch their legs by opening the door of a cage they are sitting in and which saved their lives when the quake struck.
"They can open one of the doors of the cage, they've got a little bit of movement, perhaps about a meter (3 feet) or so," Australian Workers' Union national secretary Bill Shorten said. "So there is little bit of room to move but they are not out there doing calisthenics."
Tasmanian Medical Retrieval Services director Andrew Hughes said a medical team is in constant contact with the men, who have suffered superficial injuries to their hands from attempts to dig themselves out.
"We are fairly optimistic at this stage that these men will be removed alive without any major medical problems," Hughes told reporters.
One of the miners had had his leg pinned under rock for a couple of hours, but was able to free it without injury, Hughes said. Hughes didn't say which miner.
Tasmania Ambulance Service Supt. Wolfgang Rechberger said the men were able to crawl short distances. "That certainly indicates they've still got good sensation, good movement of all limbs."
The mining company brought a specialized drill known as a raise borer, or drill bore, from another mine late Monday and spent Tuesday fitting it in place.
The machine is usually used to bore vertical ventilation shafts in mines and has to be specially anchored for the task of drilling horizontally.
Mine manager Matthew Gill said the raise borer - a revolving circular head with cutting tips one meter (three feet) in diameter - would be a slower but safer way of tunneling through the 40 feet of solid rock that has trapped the pair beneath a safety cage.
"The raise borer is now in place," said Gill, adding that drilling should begin on Wednesday. "We are going as fast as we can, but safety is paramount."
The rescue is expected to take at least 48 hours after the borer starts drilling, Shorten said Tuesday.
A pilot hole would need to be drilled to the men before a rescue tunnel could be dug.
Asked whether the miners were frustrated by the delay, Shorten said: "I can't imagine anyone is happy being there."
"I think they understand that what's being done is in their interests," Shorten added.
Gill said the men are maintaining good spirits and having "cheeky conversations" with the rescuers.
He said Russell had resigned since being underground, and asked for the Saturday newspaper to look for a new job.
The pair were able to crawl from their safety cage into a gap between the cage and a rock wall.
"They are unable to stand up in that area and for safety reasons, only get out of the cage for inspections of the area around it," Gill said.
"We continue to stress that the conditions are very difficult and very dangerous and that people should not underestimate the difficulties in getting them out safely," he added.
News that the pair were still alive came Sunday just hours after dozens of Beaconsfield residents gathered at a local church to pray for them.
The family of 44-year-old miner Larry Knight, whose body was dug out on Thursday, said Tuesday they would delay his funeral until his two trapped workmates could attend.