On a winding, empty desert road outside the city of Copiapó in northern Chile on Monday, my taxi driver and I came upon Bernarda Lorca pushing her wheelchair toward the San José gold and copper mine. Lorca, 52, wasn't looking for help; she was on a spiritual pilgrimage to what she believes will be a curative wonder. Unable to walk since she was 9, the Santiago businesswoman flew to Copiapó from the capital and began wheeling the 40 miles (65 km) to the mine where starting late Tuesday night the 33 miners trapped 2,000 ft. (700 m) beneath the earth since the mine collapsed on Aug. 5 are set to be rescued. "There are 33 of them, and Jesus died and came back to life when he was 33," Lorca explains, a Chilean flag flying from her chair. "So, you see, I had to be here with them."
Lorca is just one of thousands who have traveled this week to a mine now known as Camp Hope, a remote corner at the bottom of the world that millions more around the planet will be watching when the first miner is lifted through a 28-in.-wide (70 cm wide) shaft in an even narrower capsule. Prophets and ascetics have claimed for centuries that faith seems to bloom best in the most barren of places, and the arid moonscape of Chile's mountainous Atacama Desert is the scene of what many consider a genuine miracle the more than 70 days that the miners trapped deep within the earth's crevice have managed to survive.
As a result, since a giant U.S. drill bored a hole in the ceiling of the miners' 538-sq.-ft. (50 sq m) emergency shelter on Saturday, an elated Camp Hope has become a mix of religious revival and media circus. The dune-dusty tent camp is teeming with journalists, food hawkers, hard-hatted engineers and priests and pastors praying around the clock with the miners' families as guitar groups belt out hymn after hymn, keeping rhythm with maracas made from plastic soda bottles filled with the mine's jagged rocks. Off in the distance, drilling cranes tower over the rescue shaft and to the miners, it seems, they might as well be church steeples. "There are actually 34 of us," wrote Jimmy Sanchez, 19, the youngest trapped miner, in a letter sent up from the shelter on Tuesday through one of the narrow tubes that have been the men's lifelines, "because God has never left us down here."
But for all the pious celebration above and below, Chilean officials are far more concerned with the secular science behind the rescue. They spent much of Sunday and Monday determining that the earth-and-rock wall of the newly drilled shaft is sturdy enough to accommodate the 21-inch-wide (50 cm wide) Phoenix capsule. On Tuesday, four rescue workers will be lowered down to confirm that all the miners are fit for an ultra-claustrophobic operation that promises to be psychologically as well as physically demanding. It should take about 48 hours to pull all the men up, starting with strongest, who can best deal with any problems that rescue officials can then fix for the weaker to come.
The shaft's complex angle and curves remain a worry, albeit a smaller one now, which is one reason it was thought the rescue wouldn't start until Wednesday or later. But given the euphoric expectations the miners experienced when the drill broke through Saturday morning, officials feel it's best for both the mental and physical health of the men who after a brief time with family members will be helicoptered to a Copiapó hospital for observation to get them up as quickly as possible if the shaft is deemed safe. "The less anxiety this process generates at this point, the better," one government official told me. The men will be greatly helped during their ascent, those officials hope, by wearing a helmet with special communication equipment that will let rescue personnel talk them through every inch of the journey.
The miners' families say they're convinced that the two-month-long ordeal has made the men spiritually serene enough to make the last phase easy. "We're very religious people in this line of work," says Sanchez's father, Juan Sanchez, 49, who is also a miner and said his family is planning an epic party for his son's return. "When you enter a mine, you're automatically entrusting yourself to God. I didn't want Jimmy to do this work, but he decided on it after he had his little girl. The salary's better than construction." But even Jimmy admitted to a certain unease in his letter. "I'm not nervous yet, but I will be in a major way when it's my turn," he wrote. "I want to see my daughter and shout to the four winds."
There will be more than enough international media ready to hand him microphones to do that. So many reporters are in Copiapó and Camp Hope, in fact, that the president of the local tourism board said the desert mining town has taken in more visitor revenue in 30 days than it usually does in an entire year.
As he walked Camp Hope on Monday, Mario Kreutzberger known as Don Francisco, the Chilean who hosts Sabado Gigante, the hemisphere's most popular Spanish-language television show talked with me about why the world's gaze is fixed on Camp Hope. "This is important for our country after we got hit hard by the second worst earthquake in our history this year," Kreutzberger says. "But we're in a world crisis too. Something this extraordinarily life-preserving is important to everybody, because the whole world has been hit hard."
Some, like Bernarda Lorca, have been hit by more than just a recession. Which is why she insists the miracle she'll see in the desert Tuesday night will be worth the journey.