Return to Transcripts main page

THE SITUATION ROOM

Chilean Mine Rescue Operation Begins

Aired October 12, 2010 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Happening now, the breaking news we're following, the beginning of the end of an almost unimaginable ordeal. It begins right now, the rescue of those trapped miners in Chile imminent, expected to begin within the next few moments. This capsule will soon be carrying the first of 33 men on a harrowing journey of almost half a mile to the surface.

And health concerns certainly paramount right now in this, the final critical stage. Our chief medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, he is standing by with details of the treatment these men will be receiving.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world.

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You are in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: Let's follow the breaking news in Chile right now, the rescue of those 33 trapped miners, the most delicate and the most critical stage of the operation expected to begin within the next few moments, two men, a paramedic and a rescuer, will be lowered separately in this rescue cage 2,300 feet down to the emergency chamber where the miners have lived in brutal conditions for 68 days, since early August.

This video shows what it might look like from inside the capsule. One by one, the men will be examined. Then the first will be loaded into the cage for this harrowing journey to the surface. We are covering all angles of the story right now.

Let's begin with CNN's Patrick Oppmann. He is on the scene for us in Chile with more.

Patrick, set the scene for us this moment.

PATRICK OPPMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes.

And let me tell you where we are, Wolf. We are in downtown Copiapo Plaza. This is where hundreds of people are now beginning to gather to watch a live transmission of the miners being rescued, which will be beginning in several hours, we are told, actually should be beginning just about now. A capsule will go down to those men and pull them -- and pull them up to the surface. And these people here have gathered to watch it. It is a matter of importance not just for the family members of these miners, but many, many Chileans, most Chileans.

And these Chileans here have gathered to be together. They will be watching this late into the night as the miners (INAUDIBLE) surface. It is an amazing scene here, Wolf, in downtown Copiapo, not far from the San Jose mine.

BLITZER: Patrick, you must be near that loudspeaker, because you are hearing the announcements coming through. I want to come back to you in a moment.

Maybe you will move away from that loudspeaker and we will be able to understand what you are saying, but stand by. This is breaking news we are covering. It is very dramatic, these moments right now critical. This rescue is about to begin.

Chad Myers is over at the CNN Center. He has got more on this painstaking rescue.

Chad, walk us through what is about to happen.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: Sure.

These men now down there for over 60 days, temperatures the whole time around 90 degrees, relative humidity about 80 percent, very sweaty on their skins. That is where this fungus has come from, so not everyone in a perfect shape, everyone in great health down there.

The new update that I just got really said that there may be as many as five rescuers brought down to help the miners get out. That would mean that they would have to rescue 38 men from that mine -- 33 already there. You send five more down, you have to get them out as well.

So go with the 90 degrees, go with the high humidity then you put them in this tube, put them in this Phoenix that will rise out of the ground here, built by the navy. The hole, itself, or the bore hole that was the drill, 28 inches, inside only about 20 to 21 inches and now there are wheels on the outside of this, Wolf.

The wheels will smooth the ride for them a little bit, about a three-minute ride for an elevator, maybe five-minute for a slow one, this is going to take a lot longer than that, about one hour round- trip from start to bottom, from to finish top, we will call it. That is about 15 to 20 minutes.

They will adjust that as each miner comes up and down and says, wait, that was way too fast or, yes, you can go faster than that. The ride was very smooth. Something else we talked about, the mine elevation is about 2,400 feet. Down to the bottom, that is 2,000 feet lower.

On the blogs today, all over the place, people talking about, could these miners get the bends? Could they get the scuba diver bends where they are down underwater way too long, breathing compressed air, get up to the top, and would those nitrogen bubbles expand in their body?

We did a lot of research on this today and we just don't think that is going to be a problem. There's just not enough pressure down there. It's not like they are underwater. They are under rock, but that doesn't add air pressure.

Rafael Romo joins me now.

And you get the honor -- it might be a dubious honor, Rafael. I want you to get in here tell me what it is like.

RAFAEL ROMO, CNN SENIOR LATIN AMERICAN AFFAIRS EDITOR: Well, I can begin (INAUDIBLE) going to be a very tight fit. You were already mentioning that it is 21-and-a-half inches. That is roughly 54 centimeters for people who are more used to the metric system.

And once you get here, you get a pretty good idea of what it is going to be like to the miners. Shoulder to shoulder, I am touching the walls of the capsule, so not a lot of room for movement here. You also have to remember that the capsule is not going to be straight.

Right now, I am standing absolutely straight. Once they are being lifted up, this is going to be a little bit leaning in an angle, so it is probably going to be not too comfortable. Now, it has wheels, but it is probably going to bump a little bit.

Now, this replica just like the capsule is about 6'4''. which should be enough for all the miners. It's something that we also have to remember that even in that space, they have to wear a belt in which they are going to -- all their vital sounds are going to be checked. The belt is going to be connected to the computer on the surface and at the same time, they have to wear communications equipment so very tight and no space as you can see is being wasted here.

So, this is what is going to save their lives and I'm sure they are not going to mind the 20- or 30-minute ride that they take to the surface.

MYERS: Earlier, Rafael was telling me -- we were chatting off camera -- he said that our Michael Holmes could not get in there.

(LAUGHTER)

BLITZER: Because Michael Holmes is very tall.

How tall is Rafael Romo? And how much does he weigh, just to get a sense for our viewers?

Rafael, give us a sense of how tall you are and how wide you are, because I was told...

(CROSSTALK)

ROMO: Officially, 5'10''.

BLITZER: That's, by the way, the capsule right there. That is what it looks like, the actual capsule.

(CROSSTALK)

BLITZER: Go ahead, Rafael.

ROMO: Officially 5'10'', but the reality is 5'9.5''. I'm 180 pounds. So there you have it.

BLITZER: And you fit nicely in there. But if someone is 6', 230 pounds, they could be in trouble, especially if they have got more than a 36-inch waist; is that right?

ROMO: Well, Wolf, we have also heard that some of these miners who were just a tad overweight before they got trapped have lost about 15, 20 pounds, so that is going to allow them to fit a lot easier and more comfortably here, because otherwise, at least a couple of them would not have been able to fit in this very tight capsule.

BLITZER: And, Chad, take a look at these pictures. These are live pictures. This capsule is about to go into that shaft.

You can see it right there. The workers, they are getting ready. It looks like they were almost saying a prayer to begin this process, but it is now officially about to begin. Walk us through what they are about to do, Chad.

MYERS: I did not see actually a man in here, but there is a rescuer in the capsule going down, in the Phoenix going down. This is kind -- it's lying horizontal. Is that what I am seeing now?

BLITZER: Yes, it is lying horizontal.

(CROSSTALK)

MYERS: So they will straighten it up. They will lift it up, and someone will go in to the capsule. That person will down to the mine. That will be the first helper.

Then, after that, the first miner will get into the capsule. The most technically efficient and most mentally aware miner that they know will go in there. He will then on the way up be communicating with the people at the surface saying that is too rough, that's too slow, that's too fast, boy, it is spinning, so they will give them an idea of how all the other miners will go out.

As the first miner gets out, another rescuer will go in for the descent. We believe that five rescuers will go down. The number was two, then three, and this is still -- obviously still all breaking news. Now I know from Karl Penhaul that he was saying five rescuers last time that he heard go down there to help the miners out.

Literally about a one-hour from top to bottom to top, so round- trip, one hour. It actually goes down slower than it goes up, because gravity is kind of pulling it on the way down, where the winch is pulling it on the way up. It will go up at about one mile per hour. That will be painstakingly slow to those men, who just want to get out of there.

But considering what they have been through, that will seem like a ride to paradise.

BLITZER: Don't go away, Chad. They are lifting up this capsule right now as our viewers here in the United States around the world can see.

Gary Tuchman is on the scene for us.

Gary, I don't know if you are seeing these live pictures right now, but this is the capsule. An individual, a person will get into that capsule and will go down to the bottom of the shaft where these 33 trapped miners have been waiting for more than two months and then one by one, they will be brought to the top.

Tell us what you are seeing and what you are hearing. I want to keep these pictures up, though, so that our viewers can see it -- Gary.

GARY TUCHMAN, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, you're right. We are seeing the pictures live also and we are seeing the bird's-eye view from a hilltop that they have allowed us to get to.

This is the first time that we have been able to see with our own eyes the site where this amazing rescue is taking place.

And Chad and Karl are right. The latest news officials are telling us, that instead of two medical personnel and rescuers going down there, there will be a total of five.

And of course, they have to go one at a time. The ride is expected to take 17 minutes going down, so it should be at least an hour, maybe more, before we see a miner come up. But five paramedic mine rescue experts will go down, make sure the situation is stable on the ground. They have every reason to expect it to be because they have been in constant communication with these 33 men for weeks.

But these are amazing pictures. Ten minutes ago, we saw the capsule coming on a truck being delivered to this site. If you didn't know anything about this story and looked at the site, it looks like just a sewer, but this is what they have been drilling for weeks now, having success a few days ago, and now reaching the pinnacle of what they had hoped for, rescuing the 33 men who undoubtedly now are down on the ground and waiting for that capsule to come down.

It is very interesting, Wolf. Two days ago, they tested the capsule. They brought it down almost all the way and they stopped short 30 feet of their goal. And one of the officials was asked, why didn't you bring it down all the way just to make sure it could get down to the miners?

And the mine official said half-jokingly, half-seriously, we were afraid somebody would climb on it. And they didn't want the miners to get too eager to go on it. But now it is about to go all the way to the bottom with the expert who will help ascertain whether the 33 miners are ready for the ride up. I bet you the answer is going to be yes.

BLITZER: Will that first person who goes down to the bottom begin this process be one of the rescuers or one of the medical, paramedical officers?

TUCHMAN: It's not clear. They're keeping a lot of this information close to the vest. And that's because they want to be able to change it as they go along depending on the circumstances.

Another piece of information they are not telling us is who will come in what order. They say they will decide that after the rescuers and the paramedics go down to the bottom to make sure. They have given us guidelines, though. They said the first few people who come up will be the people in best physical and mental shape.

That's because they want to make sure nothing unforeseen happens while they're on the ride up. After that, they will bring the people who are, relatively speaking, in the worst conditions right now. We have a man who is a diabetic who is down there. We have a man suffering from hypertension.

They will undoubtedly be coming up among the first few. And then they will finish it off with people who are in relatively good shape. But we as of now don't know the names of the people. Obviously, to most of our viewers, it doesn't much matter what the names are. They are just happy to see men coming up from the mine after being down there for almost seven weeks, 68 days, Wolf, in the dark.

BLITZER: And you can see, Chad and Rafael, they have opened up the Phoenix capsule. It looks like there are some oxygen tanks inside there as well.

Chad, pick up what you are seeing. Describe what is going on right now.

MYERS: That would be my call, that those were oxygen canisters that will go down with the men, probably exchangeable as well, because you don't just put O2 in there. You don't put straight oxygen.

You put the perfect mix that you want them to breathe when they get to the surface. We also -- when we were looking at those bends issues, we were looking at partial pressures, which means how much oxygen compared to how much nitrogen might be down there in that air that they are breathing, because clearly this is not just surface air, although they have been trying to pump down good air to them.

This is air that has been stale. It is, well, obviously, 2,000 feet down. It's very humid down there, and so that the relative humidity being 80 percent will be quite shock as they come to the surface. The relative humidity -- this is a desert. This is the Atacama Desert. The relative humidity up at the surface may in fact be something like 15 percent, and so therefore, they will be wearing warm gear. Even though it is warm when they are down there now, they will be wearing warm gear because they know that halfway on the way up, it won't be warm anymore.

If you go into like Penn's Cave or an anthracite mine, like I'm used to in Pennsylvania, it's not warm. It's not 90 degrees. It's cold. It's 55, it's 60 degrees, because that is the normal temperature of what it's like underground.

But when you go too far, you lose that cool and you begin to warm up again. And eventually if you just keep going, you go to the center of the Earth and we don't even know what the temperature is down there, obviously thousands of degrees.

But at this point, they are warm. They will be cool and they are going to have them fully warmed and clothed so that when they do get up to the surface, it won't be a temperature shock, a temperature shock. It will be a culture shock for sure.

And the good news is I think by the time they get there, even though this is now sunset, it looks like by the time they get this capsule down, get them loaded and back up, it will probably be dark, so we won't be worrying about what we talked about yesterday, which is those polycarbonate glasses that would keep any U.V. rays out of their retinas, because now being, well, without basically U.V. exposure for so many days, their retinas are very sensitive, kind of like you going out after being in the winter, all winter long, jumping out in the spring on a sunny day, staying out for eight hours.

Well, your body is going to get a very bad sunburn, because it has not seen U.V. for so long. They didn't want that to happen to their eyes, obviously -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And just to recap, that is the capsule that will go down. They will take five individuals, rescuers, medical personnel. They will go down to begin the process of bringing up those 33 miners.

These are live pictures you are seeing. You saw that little door opened. I thought I saw -- Gary Tuchman is on the scene for us.

In addition to what looked like these oxygen tanks, there was a light there, I'm sure a battery-powered light, so when these men take this 17-, 18-minute ride to the surface, they won't be in the dark. There will be at least some light which will help them, Gary. Is that your understanding as well?

TUCHMAN: Yes, that is the understanding, Wolf.

They will have some light with them. They will also have oxygen masks for the ride. And they will also have two-way communication devices. So they will be able to talk. There is some concern that while they are taking the ride up they can get very scared and that perhaps they will get a bit paranoid that they are by themselves. That's why they want to have communications. They want to have oxygen. We have also just been told, Wolf, that operations will begin within one hour. Now, do operations mean the experts going down or the miners up? That is not being specified right now.

And I apologize that we can't give you exact information about times, about names. But keep in mind this is the first time in history that anything like this has ever happened, that so many men have been underground for so many days.

So, everything is a little up in the air when we're given the information. What we are being guaranteed is that it is a safe bet that they will do everything they can to make sure all these the men are completely safe as they come up and as they go to the hospital. Once they arrive here, they will meet with their families.

They will then all be obliged, no matter what kind of condition they're in, to get on a helicopter that will be here and fly to a nearby hospital that is about 40 miles away to get treated. But right now we're being told -- the quote is operations will begin.

BLITZER: All right.

You can see also -- in that capsule over there, you can see those wheels. They will be on the side of the shaft as it goes up to protect, to provide a bit -- a little bit of a smoother ride for these 33 men and the five individuals who are going down.

A total of 38 individuals will eventually have to come up to the top, the 33 who have been there for two months, the who are five going down to rescue them, including the medical personnel.

Rafael Romo, you are learning more information as well. What are you picking up?

ROMO: That is right, Wolf.

As we take a look at those images, what I can tell you is that that capsule is also going to be equipped with a video camera that is going to be -- really going to allow people on the surface to see what is going on during the rescue.

That video camera, in addition to oxygen tanks and medical equipment that will be there, is going to make the capsule weigh about 924 pounds, about 420 kilograms. But the idea here is that the rescue team on the surface can monitor vital signs of every single miner as he is being rescued.

They will be able to monitor their heartbeat, their high blood pressure. And also today, earlier this morning, their diet was changed to a diet of liquids to make sure that they reduce the possibility that they can have symptoms like nausea as they are going up.

So all in all, it is a very heavy capsule. They're going to be very careful in the way they lift it up, but every single precaution has been taken. So it is the beginning of an odyssey, and at the same time is the end of a very painful process for these miners in northern Chile, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, stand by, because maybe Gary Tuchman can help us. These individuals we are seeing right now, I can only assume that some of them are the -- among the five who will be going down to begin this process to help with the rescue.

Gary, I hope you are able to see these live pictures we are showing our viewers. Do you know who these individuals are?

TUCHMAN: Unfortunately, Wolf, we don't know who these individuals are. We have been asking that for the last two days. Who are the experts who are going down into the mine? We are not even sure that the experts knew yesterday and early today who exactly was going in the mine, because, as recently as two hours ago, we were told it would only be two experts going into the mine.

So we are not sure who these people are. We are sure, though, at this point that is a number that totals five. And they will have to go down one at a time. That's really important to emphasize. We were thought, we were told only an hour-and-a-half ago that we expected that, in about 40 minutes, the first miner would be coming up.

There's no way that can mathematically happen right now, because each ride will take 17 minutes. There's five people who have to go down. So, you're talking about an hour and 40 minutes of just going down. Then it still has to come up. So, we may be at least two hours away from miners coming to the surface.

So, I just told you a short time ago that operations begin within an hour. I can personally attest, given my mathematical education, that there's no way the operation means miners coming up within an hour. That can't happen at this point.

BLITZER: Yes. It's going to take a while for this process. And they want to be safe, rather than sorry. So, they want to make sure that they err on the side of caution.

We are going to stay on top of this story. We are not going away. CNN is the place to see this rescue operation begin and continue. We will stay with this story.

We will take a quick break. Our coverage of the breaking news will continue right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: All right. These are the live pictures. You see the president of Chile there. He is meeting with some of the rescue workers. They are getting ready to begin this process.

Five rescue workers including medical personnel will be lowered into that shaft firs. Then the 33 miners, we are told, will begin to come up. The process is expected to begin within the hour. The president of the United States, President Obama, like so many other people all over the world, are watching and praying.

Let's go to Dan Lothian, our White House correspondent.

Dan, I take it the president has just issued a statement.

DAN LOTHIAN, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That is right. As you pointed out, everyone paying very close attention to these dramatic pictures that are coming out of Chile, as this dramatic rescue effort gets under way.

The White House putting out a statement from the president a short time ago where he says -- quote -- "Our thoughts prayers are with the brave miners, their families and the men and women who have been working so hard to rescue them. While that rescue is far from over, and difficult work remains, we pray that by God's grace the miners will be able to emerge safely and return to their families soon. We are also proud of all of the Americans who have been working with our Chilean friends on the ground to do everything that we can to bring these miners home" -- that statement from the president just a short time ago, Wolf.

BLITZER: So, he is watching. The staff is watching. Folks all over the country, indeed, all over the world, are watching. And these are live pictures once again over at the scene as they're getting ready to begin this process.

Let's reset what is going on right now. Our man Gary Tuchman is on the scene for us in Chile. He's right there at this site.

Gary, we see that capsule being prepared with the oxygen tanks, getting ready to be placed into that pipe that will take the five individuals down to the site where these 33 miners have been trapped now for more than two months.

Set the scene for us what is about to happen before it gets dark there.

TUCHMAN: Wolf, something dramatic just happened. They put the Chilean flag -- that thing must be -- I'm estimating -- 20 feet tall, the flag of the nation of Chile.

And they put it up here, up here in the press section where I'm standing. It's the first time we have been allowed to see the area where the miners are going to be coming up. A loud applause and whistles rang out as people saw the Chilean flag. Most of the news media here is from Chile, but they're also from all over the world.

At last count, 39 countries' news media are covering this. There are about 1,500 journalists who have come to this area. This area for eons has been basically abandoned. All there is here is this mine. It's a copper and gold mine. There are gold in them thar hills here in this part of Chile. And they have been mining here for generations.

There have never been this people here until this occurred, and now it has become a small city. They call it Camp Esperanza. Esperanza is the Spanish word for hope, Camp Hope, because they had a lot of hope that these 33 miners would survive. Indeed, they are all alive and well.

And the plan is starting maybe within the next couple of hours most likely the first of 33 miners will be pulled up in the cylinder which is called the Phoenix, as in the bird that rose through the ashes. It will travel about one mile per hour.

The idea at this point is for it to get from the bottom 2,300 feet down to top in about 16 minutes. To give you an idea of 2,300 feet, that it is more than twice the size of the Empire State Building. So, it is a long way. It could be a perilous journey for the psyche, for the mental health of some of the miners who are coming up, because they have been with their colleagues.

It's been a tough -- a tough situation. But they have been with their colleagues now for seven weeks underground. They had their support. And they are going to start an individual ride on a device they have obviously never been on before. It could be spinning around at times. It could be a very difficult, tumultuous ride.

But when they get to the top, they will each have family members. They have been allowed to have three family members right at the site as they come up. They will have these amazingly, incredibly emotional reunions when they get up here. They will then be brought to a temporary hospital that's right here on the ground next to the site where they will come up.

They will then have a chance to talk with their relatives. And then they will then be obliged to be flown in a helicopter to a real hospital about a 10-minute flight away from here for treatment. But it is all beginning right now as the cylinder goes down at a time with five medical officials and rescue officials who will ascertain how things are on the bottom, 2,300 feet down.

BLITZER: And it looks, Gary, like they are doing some finishing touches on that Phoenix capsule, as it's called.

Stand by for a moment.

Chad Myers, remind our viewers how they created this capsule for this rescue operation.

MYERS: Well, I really challenge anybody to go to Google and Google Quecreek and find Quecreek Mine and the rescue that happened there somewhere eight or nine years ago in Pennsylvania, where miners were trapped in a flooding mine and the drill bit came from the top to the bottom and made basically the similar size hole.

They built this -- what I would remember to be the yellow cage that they brought these miners up here. And the American miners were covered in mud and they were dirty. But they were so unbelievably grateful to get out of that mine hole, that mine hole.

And so what happened here, there were a couple of pilot holes that no question about it almost miraculously pierced the top of this in on the very first try. Then that pilot hole, only about what they called 7.5 centimeters, three inches around, that pilot hole was then made bigger, made bigger to about 12 inches by the next bore bit.

And then where we are now, we are all the way to 28 inches, because a bigger bit made by a Schramm T-130 drill -- look that up, too, if you want to have some American pride -- got that big bit, that 28-inch it, all the way down to the miners.

As the bit was working, the big bit was working, you have to understand there is already a 12-inch hole going down. There were bits of rocks and debris falling down into the mine hole where the miners were supposed to be. So, the miners were scattered away from the mine hole as the debris fell down. The bit stopped for a while.

And then the miners actually got busy. The miners removed that debris that had fallen down the smaller hole, got it out of the way, because they knew that eventually that is where this capsule would be coming down through the ceiling of their little room that they had down there, their safe room down there.

One thing I want to talk about what Gary just said about that 10- minute helicopter flight that they are going to get to the main hospital. Weather could play a slight problem with this. The miners and also the mining officials say that, at night, that typically -- this has happened now almost every night -- a fog will roll in.

Now, if you live in San Francisco, you understand. That's the marine layer. As the marine layer rolls in, that will stop the helicopters from flying. And if miners are coming out with that marine layer on the ground, they will be put into a regular ambulance, and it will be a one-hour ride to the hospital, not a 10-minute flight -- Wolf.

BLITZER: That is the president of Chile right there. He is meeting with the rescuers, the workers there. They are getting ready for this process to begin. I guess some last-minute photo opportunities, as well. We're not leaving this story. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, our chief medical correspondent is here with us, as well.

Sanjay, talk a little bit about what these 33 miners can expect as far as their health is concerned in the coming hours and days?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, a lot of what's happening right now is making sure they're going to be stable for this rescue mission. That's the obvious thing. That's going to involve actually taking a look at things that they can measure while the miners are still down in the mine: measuring their blood pressure, their heart rate, making sure they have enough fluid in their bodies so that they don't start to become lightheaded, faint or even pass out during the rescue mission itself but not give too much fluid where it makes it difficult for them to breathe.

Now fir the last more than two months, Wolf, as you know, they've been in this very small space. It's very humid and very hot. They've probably been taking shallow breaths. Their lungs may be slightly collapsed, as compared to normal. And they obviously have slightly different pressures at that level below the surface of the earth -- at the surface when they are rescued.

So it's a little bit like, you know, we've never -- nothing like this has quite been done before, so let's plan for everything. That's sort of been the playbook here. So everything from looking at what is going to happen to their eyes with sudden exposure to sunlight. They have not had vitamin D for some time, so will their bones be a bit more brittle. And also, they haven't been exposed to germs and viruses on the surface of the earth. Might they need inoculations immediately after the rescue? Some of those things may sound minor, Wolf, but again, it's dotting all the "I's" and crossing all the "T's," Wolf.

BLITZER: So if you were the doctor on the scene, once they reached the surface, what immediate tests, what would you immediately be looking for as you examine these 33 miners?

GUPTA: Well, you know, the thing about medical triage, Wolf, is that there is -- there is a pattern to it. There's a real consistent pattern to it. And so, with anybody, you know, the first time you're examining them, you want to do things in a sort of preset order, make sure that they're breathing OK, that their airway's OK, that their lungs have not collapsed.

So you're going to see the doctors literally, you know, putting a stethoscope on the lungs, making sure the lungs are fully inspiring and expiring, checking their heart rate, checking their blood pressure, those basic things; making sure there's no significant amount of swelling in the feet, for example, which may indicate that they have started to build up fluid as a result of some sort of heart problem.

Those are going to be -- you know, those are the life-saving things that are done sort of on the surface, the sort of immediate medical triage. Beyond that, Wolf, after this trip to the hospital that both Gary and Chad were talking about, it's going to be some of the other things, you know, making sure that the, you know, is there any possibility of broken bones as a result of all that they've been through? Looking at the impact on their eyes. They're going to get special sunglasses, although I guess it's going to be dark when they're rescued, but still, special sunglasses so their pupils don't suddenly constrict and that causes some damage to their retina. And then obviously, a lot of the psychological counseling and resources being made available very quickly to these miners, as well, Wolf.

BLITZER: And we know that a paramedic is going to go down first and, I guess, take a look at these 33 miners and make sure that they can come up to the top, that they're physically OK. What will this paramedic be looking for?

GUPTA: They've been doing some interesting things here, Wolf. One comment was made if you can't measure what's going on with the miners, you can't manage it. If you think about that, that gives you an idea of what the paramedic is doing: really getting a lot of biometric information on these miners, some of the things we are just talking about, you know, heart rate, blood pressure, making sure they're going to be able to tolerate this rescue mission. If you think about the capsule, Wolf, and someone being upright in the capsule, if they suddenly started to feel faint, you wouldn't be able to lay them down necessarily, so you want to make sure their blood pressure isn't going to drop during the rescue mission.

As part of that, they may be putting pressure garments on the lower extremities of some of these miners to sort of force the flood, force the fluids higher up in the body. They may be giving some of these miners salt tablets to sort of accomplish the same purpose: make sure the blood stays in the blood vessels and maintains a good pressure throughout the mission.

There are certain potential disasters. One of them is passing out in the rescue mission itself. So they're going to be taking all preventive and proactive measures to prevent it from happening, but if you can't measure it, you can't manage it. So that is what the paramedic's job is going to be.

Sanjay is going to stay with us for the breaking news coverage. Sanjay, don't go far away.

We'll resume the breaking news coverage here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We're awaiting the start of the rescue, and that coverage will continue right after this. ?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: You're looking at these live pictures. They're doing the finishing touches on the capsule that will go down and start bringing these 33 miners to the surface. We expect this process to begin momentarily. The president of Chile is there on the scene. He's speaking with rescue workers in these live pictures as you can see right now. This is the San Jose mine.

Since early August, these miners have been trapped. They were trapped for 17 days before anyone knew that they were alive or dead, but then a note from one of those miners was sent, the 63-year-old miner, the oldest of the miners -- the youngest is 19 -- was sent to the top. They found out where they were all trapped. And since then they've been digging and digging and digging.

That's the capsule. One by one, they will be brought to the top. First, it will go down. Five paramedics and rescuers will go down and start this process. We expect it to begin very, very soon. We are also getting new information on the first individual, the first miner who will be brought to the top.

Brian Todd is joining us.

Brian, what you learning?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I've been able to monitor some of the real-time feed and briefings from our own affiliate, our own network in Chile, CNN Chile. We're the only network based in the United States that has another network, 24-hour news network in Chile, giving us the benefit of some real-time briefings. You've just heard one of them, as you mentioned. They have said, which miner is going to be brought to the surface first. His name is Florencio Avalos, 33 years old. He has eight years' experience as a miner. He will be the first miner brought to the surface, according to Chilean officials who are at the rescue site. Again, a briefing they just gave on CNN Chile.

Also, a little bit more detail about the rescuers who will be going down and puling them out one by one. We're told the first rescuer will be a, quote, mining rescuer. The second rescuer down would be a medical rescuer. One of the names we were just given in this briefing of the rescuers, Christian Brugano (ph), one of these rescuers is affiliated with the Chilean navy. I'm not sure if it's Mr. Brugano (ph) or whether it's that first mining rescuer down.

But again, new detail: the first two rescuers down will be first a mining rescuer down to pull, we believe, Mr. Florencio Avalos to the surface. The second will be a medical specialist. And it could be that Christian Brugano (ph) is the name of that medical specialist. We believe that's who it is. Then at least one of these rescuers is affiliated with the Chilean navy.

Again, the name of that first miner to be pulled out, and a very dramatic scene. And they got some sound from his father at the scene. Florencio Avalos, 33 years old, a young man with 8 years experience as a miner. And this all coming from our own network in Chile, CNN Chile.

BLITZER: Florencio Antonio Avalos Silva. Do we know why he will be the first miner who will be brought to the top?

TODD: You know, not clear on that, and from the briefing we just heard, Wolf, they're not really specifying. What we have been told is, you know, possibly, they may bring the first to the surface those who might have had some kind of medical issue, some people who might have had diabetes, hypertension or some other medical issues like that. He's a young man. I'm not clear what any medical issue that he have -- he has might be, but again, we're told that that could be the priority, is the guys that have had maybe some medical problems that have stood out, and they feel like they just have to get them to the surface first.

BLITZER: That's interesting, because the other explanation I've heard is they want to bring the strongest, most resilient first, perhaps with the most experience to be able to brief authorities at the top on what's going on in case they need to tinker or make some adjustments to do a better job. I've also heard that explanation for who the first of the rescued miners might be.

We'll continue to watch that and see if we can get some more specific information on why Florencio Antonio Avalos Silva will be the first miner rescued. We expect this process to begin momentarily. We have a guest who's an expert on all of this who's joining now. Dennis O'Dell is the director of occupational health and safety for the United Mine Workers Association.

Dennis, thanks very much. As you see these dramatic pictures and you've been involved in rescue operations yourself, what goes through your mind as you see this capsule being prepared to go down a half a mile into the ground and start bring these miners up to the top?

DENNIS O'DELL, DIRECTOR, OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH AND SAFETY, UNITED MINE WORKERS ASSOCIATION: I'll tell you, there's all kinds of things that's going through my mind as I watch this. I've worked underground with mine for 20 years, and I've been trained, actually, to work a hoist and to take a capsule in and out of mines. And I've actually ridden one of these out of the mine before.

So I mean, the anticipation of what these guys are going to have to go through when they get in this capsule to ride it out. The hoist operator who's going to operate this hoist, you know, he's going to have to figure out what speed he needs to maintain to bring them out so that they're comfortable and don't come out too fast, don't come out too slow and make it just about right. And it's -- it's a sense, a feel that you develop from doing this.

I'm sure they have probably one of the best hoist operators in the country that's going to be doing this. Just the anticipation, I mean, this is exciting. But the anxiety has got to be way up there for these guys, because the anticipation of coming outside after being underground for all these -- all this time, I mean, it's just unbelievable what we're watching.

BLITZER: Well, describe what it's like. If you were in a capsule similar to this capsule and you came to the surface in the capsule, describe that ride to our viewers. What's it like inside there?

O'DELL: Well, when I rode it, you've got to -- you've got to understand it was during inspection mode, so it wasn't like I was trapped underground for a long period of time, and it was under conditions just to check the hoist and the cage to make sure everything was OK.

I can tell you that -- that it spun a number of times coming out, as they pulled me out. And the distance was a lot shorter than the distance that they're going to be bringing these miners out of, but it was quite nauseating to me, in the space between you and the cage and the shaft, itself. It's quite an experience. It's not something I'd want to do all the time, I can tell you. I did it because we had to do it for inspection purposes and for training purposes, but it's not something that I enjoyed doing. It's not a real pleasant ride, I can tell you that.

BLITZER: It looks like these individuals, Dennis, know what they're doing. These are experts. I assume these are the world's No. 1 experts on a rescue operation of this nature. Not only people from Chile but people from the United States and all over the world have been brought in to consult.

O'DELL: I'm telling you everything I've seen so far seems to enforce that, too. From the very beginning of how they've approached this whole rescue and recovery, how they've decided to establish communications from the beginning, not hide any information from the miners, you know, when they felt comfortable enough to let them know how long they were going to be underground, they told them so that there wouldn't be the unknown.

I mean, from watching as an outsider and an experienced miner, it looks like they have handled this exceptionally well, and it's clear that they do have a lot of well-trained professionals carrying out this rescue and recovery.

BLITZER: Dennis, I want to bring Gary Tuchman into this conversation. He's on the scene for us in Chile right now. Gary, I know that you're watching it. If you have a question you want to ask Dennis O'Dell, he's the director of occupational health and safety with the United Mine Workers Association. He's a real authority on this kind of a rescue operation. Go ahead and ask Dennis your question, because I'm sure you have a question or two you'd like to ask.

TUCHMAN: Dennis, the single most important question, and people here are being very cautious. They're not guaranteeing anything. We assume it's going to be a safe ending, but how much real risk is there in bringing 33 men who seem to be in good shape up to the top and then all surviving well?

O'DELL: Well, let me tell you, there is always a risk. And any time you 're into a recovery and a rescue mode like this, you always err on the side of caution on anything you do.

I mean, so many things can go perfect, but so many things can go wrong, as well. The rope can get twisted up. There could be a shift in the -- in the hole, itself, as they're bringing them out. I mean, there's just so many things, because they're going to be going up and down numerous amount of times. There's going to be a stress factor that takes place.

So there's so many things that can go wrong, but it sounds like they took those extra precautions, extra steps when they cased it with the metal casing inside to prevent a lot of the rock fall and things like that.

You've got to worry about how the miners, themselves, will react once they get put into the capsule. I mean, if you get a miner in there, and halfway out, he starts panicking and anxiety or anything starts taking place, and people know that's going on, I mean, that can spread like wildfire.

But the one nice thing about this is that they're actually sending folks underground to assess the miners and look at them before they start bringing them out. And so they'll be able to relay the information outside, you know, what the ride was like going in. Was the speed OK? Does it need to go a little bit faster? Does it need to go a little bit slower?

Or are the communications established, can -- can we make contact with each other, and hear each other clearly. And then, of course, to be able to look at the miners themselves to figure out and decide which one they're going to send out first and in what order. So there's a lot of different things that you have the take into consideration in an event like this.

BLITZER: All right. I'm going to ask you to stand by, Dennis O'Dell from the United Mine Workers Association. Gary Tuchman is on the scene for us. You can see workers are doing -- they're going through the finishing touches of this capsule that will be lowered and that eventually, we hope, in the next hour or two will start bringing these miners to the surface in Chile.

We're going to stay on top of the breaking news. We're not going away. Our coverage will continue right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: All right. I want to go book to Gary Tuchman. He's on the scene for us in Chile. We're watching. We're waiting. We expect very soon the rescue will begin of those 33 miners. And Gary's getting more information on the first miner, Gary, who that will be brought to the surface.

TUCHMAN: Wolf, we're getting more information about that first miner, and Brian Todd, our colleague, was just selling us, Florencio Antonio Avalos Silva, he's 30 years old, according to the Chilean government. And we were telling you earlier, Wolf, the idea is to bring up men who are in the good physical and mental shape first, the first few, to make sure the ride is OK, then bring up people who are perhaps a little weaker. And that is still the plan.

This guy is in very good shape. As a matter of fact, he's been the cameraman underground for the last seven weeks doing the documentation of all the miners inside the mine. So it felt like he knows the miners the best. He's done all the video that he sent up. His brother happens to be in the mine, too. His brother's name is Renan Alsono Avalos Silva (ph), who's 29 years old.

His brother is a carrier pigeon handler. We don't know when he's going to come up. But the first brother who's going to come up is the cameraman. We are hearing the second person might be coming up. He's the narrator to the video. So it would appear they want to bring up the journalists. Who would think that? Before they bring up anybody else.

But what they want to play, Wolf, I'll tell you, last time I was talking to you, people cheered instead of whistling when the Chilean flag was unfolded about 20 feet tall behind me. I should have known better. I'm a big sports fan and as you know, in many South American countries, when people whistle, they're not whistling because they're happy. They're whistling because they're mad. And as it turns out, I turned around to take a look at it. The flag was blocking our view. So they moved the flag a little bit, and now we can see again.

BLITZER: They're briefing the media now, Gary, as you're speaking. Laurence Golborne, who is one of the chief spokesmen. And now Rene Aguilar is briefing. Let's listen in briefly to hear what they're saying.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): In some minutes you will see that the cage will be -- will be moved up. But this does not mean that we're moving to the rescue.

We're working with the miners underground to establish the communications system. They have -- we have established a fiber optics web of 400 meters. They're establishing the television camera that will give us information, and we need to also establish two parallel communications systems: one on the surface, a second one with the rescue worker at the bottom of the mine. And a third one between -- communication between emergency, the emergency services and the rescue workers.

We expect the communications system will be ready for -- will be up and ready in the next couple of hours. In the next -- in a couple of hours, we should -- we should begin to move the capsule. We need to -- we will first be having to do -- we'll make the capsule travel all the way. And we will be moving -- we will be -- the -- the cage will be elevated, and the first rescue worker will be taking place inside the capsule. And the capsule will be moving slowly towards the bottom of the mine.

Then we'll be doing, conducting a speed test. We will be increasing the speed of the capsule. And then after this, the rescue worker will bring out -- will come back up to the surface. He'll give us his final report, and then the rescue effort will begin.

LAURENCE GOLBORNE, SPOKESMAN (through translator): Minister -- the tunnel in optimum conditions to commence the descent, there hasn't been any changes. The capsule will go in first, empty with the cameras and then secondly with the rescue worker.

Has it -- has it been named who the first rescue worker will be? Yes. We've been defined and it will be communicated to them in the -- in the moments of the assent. The names of the four rescue workers as a preliminary list and these are the people that we have considered that are -- that are able to do, first do the ascent. So we're talking about two hours. We should begin the testing of the capsules in about two more hours.

Of course, this timeline is flexible, depending on some of the technical complexities.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): So before midnight, you believe that the first one of the miners will come out?

GOLBORNE (through translator): Yes, we have the hope and we're working so that before today ends, at least one of the miners will be on the surface.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: (speaking foreign language)

BLITZER: All right, so there's the news conference. You got the news. They're going to start within the next couple of hours to start sending that capsule down. That's Laurence Golborne, the minister who's been leading these press briefings for the media at the site of this rescue operation. It's a dramatic moment indeed.

We had anticipated that the actual capsule would start going down within the past hour, but now they're still making sure -- they're erring on the side of caution -- that everything is in place. They want to make sure there are no snags as they're going forward.

As we watch this dramatic rescue operation that's just about to begin, we expect within the next hour or two, we get some more now on just who these 33 miners are. They're trapped half a mile beneath the surface of the earth. Let's go back to CNN's senior Latin affairs editor, Rafael Romo.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ROMO (voice-over): He has been one of the miners who has written the most. In one of his letters, Mario Segovia (ph) lists the people he wants to meet when his confinement ends. One of them is his sister.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): When he wrote the first letter to me, he told me that he has not taken God seriously in his life, that he always thought religion was a joke. He now has learned to pray, and he wants to be close to God.

ROMO: Mining is his family business. He learned the job from his father, and he likes what he does, but mining accidents have always been present.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): He had an accident before. He broke his hand. He has metal and nails in his hands.

ROMO: Segovia (ph) is a family man: three sons and a devoted wife. He likes to share with people, cook barbecues and listen to folk music. He spends hours watching TV, a simple pleasure. His sister Maria believes he's having a hard time trapped in the mine.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE (through translator): He's not sleeping well. He's under treatment to sleep. I see him very worried.

ROMO: Segovia (ph) is 48 years old. He loves football, a devoted fan of El Colocolo de Chile (ph), one of the local football teams. He goes to the stadium whenever money allows, but his real team, his family, will always be there for him and cannot wait for him to get out of the depths of the earth.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Rafael Romo, reporting. Remember these are live pictures you're seeing right now. This is the capsule. Within the next couple of hours, it will go down and start the process of bringing those 33 miners to the surface.

We'll have continuing coverage here on CNN. Much more coming up at the top of the hour, on "JOHN KING USA." This program reminder: tomorrow night I'll be co-moderating the debate in the closely-watched Delaware Senate race between Republican Christine O'Donnell and Democrat Chris Coons. They'll face off at the university of Delaware. Our special coverage of the debate will begin tomorrow night, 7:30 p.m. Easter, only here on CNN. Thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in THE SITUATION ROOM.

"JOHN KING USA" starts right now.

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Wolf.

And good evening, everyone.

Tonight we'll continue our coverage of the dramatic breaking news in Chile, where 33 miners have been trapped a half mile underground for 69 days now.