Chilean rescue workers have made a major breakthrough in their long quest to free 33 trapped miners after finishing an escape shaft designed to bring them back above ground.
Waiting relatives cheered and wept tears of joy as news that rescue engineers had finally made contact with the miners filtered around a makeshift campsite that has been dubbed "Camp Hope," adjacent to the San Jose Mine in northern Chile.
The signal that a long complex drilling operation had finally reached a successful conclusion came as engineers began punching the air with joy.
The operation, known as Plan B, has been described as one of the most complicated rescue efforts in mining history and involved drilling 625 meters below the surface to free the men.
The miners, who have been trapped underground since the mine collapsed on August 5, will be winched to the surface one at a time in special capsules just wider than a man's shoulders. It is thought it could take several more days to bring all the men back above ground.
They had earlier been warned that they may not be above ground before Christmas because of the complexity of the drilling work.
'It Was Wonderful'
Gregory Hall, an American engineer involved in the rescue, described the final moments of the drilling operation and the joyous scenes as rescuers finally made contact with the trapped miners.
"If you think we were happy, you ought to have seen those guys. They were just going crazy, I mean, imagine, because that's a big step for us going home," he said. "They were just going crazy. It was wonderful."
Horns were sounded and bells rung outside the mine to greet the news.
Chile's mining minister, Laurence Golborne, said an important landmark had been passed but attempted to calm the euphoria by stressing that further work still had to be done to complete the rescue.
"We have drilled for 33 days to rescue 33 miners, there is still a long path to make, a long way to go and precautions to take, but we have completed a step, an important landmark in the rescue process which we hope will end adequately," Golborne said.
"It's another stage in which we must continue to work so that we can achieve the rescue which only ends when the last person down there comes out of that mine."
Relatives and friends of the trapped miners have held candlelight vigils at the accident-plagued gold and copper mine in the far northern Atacama Desert since the collapse, and will stay put at the mine until the men are pulled out.
The rescue effort has captivated Chile since the trapped men sent a message to the surface 17 days after the accident saying they were still alive.
compiled from agency reports