After more than two months trapped deep in a Chilean mine, 33 miners were tantalizingly close to rescue on Sunday and officials said they were so giddy with confidence of success they were arguing over who would be the last one out.
The first tests of the three rescue capsules built by Chilean naval engineers will likely begin early Wednesday, with the rescue to begin later that day and last about 48 hours, said Mining Minister Laurence Golborne.
A day after drillers broke through to where the miners have been abiding, officials began detailed monitoring of their health and sweating every detail of the half-mile ascent that is expected to last about 20 minutes for each man.
"Today we sent down special equipment to measure their heart rate, their respiration rate and skin temperature," said Jaime Manalich, Chile's health minister.
He said officials were concerned about hypertension because the speed with which the miners will ascend the nearly half mile to the surface.
Another concern is blood clotting.
To counteract it, the miners began taking 100 miligrams each of aspirin on Sunday and will until the rescue, he said. They'll also put on compression socks and will be on a special high-calorie liquid prepared and donated by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration for the final six hours before being removed, Manalich said.
That's to prevent them from becoming nauseous as the rescue capsule is expected to rotate 350 degrees some 10-12 times through curves in the 28-inch-diameter escape hole on its way up, he added.
Officials biggest worry? "Panic attacks," said Manalich.
"This is the first time in many weeks that the miners are going to be completely alone," he added.
A small video camera will be placed in the escape capsule so each miner's face can we watched as he ascends. Each will also have a mask attached to an oxygen tank affixed to their face and two-way voice communication.
A list has been drawn up suggesting the order in which the 33 miners should be rescued, and Manalich said the otherwise cooperative miners were squabbling about it.
"They were fighting with us yesterday because everyone wanted to be at the end of the line, not the beginning," he told reporters, It's a question of solidarity.
"I think they're more excited than scared or nervous," Brandon Fisher, president of Center Rock Inc., the Pennsylvania company whose hammer-style drill heads created the hole, told The Associated Press. "That first guy up might be a little nervous, though."
The final order will be determined by a Navy special forces paramedic who will be lowered into the mine to prepare the men for their journey.
A video inspection Saturday showed the hole's walls firm and smooth, without any fissures or rupture of walls of the mine.
"If this had been a vertical hole we probably could have done it in half the time," said Fisher.
Only the top few hundred feet (almost 100 meters) of the escape hole needed to be reinforced with a sleeve and workers were welding together about 16 steel pipes for that purpose.
The completion of the escape shaft Saturday morning caused bedlam in the tent city known as "Camp Hope," where the miners' relatives had held vigil for an agonizing 66 days since a cave-in sealed off the gold and copper mine Aug. 5.
The drill that punctured through worked constantly for 28 days with a few breaks when some of its hammers fractured, once on a 2-meter (6.6-foot) roof bolt used to support mine shaft ribs.
When it broke through Saturday, the rescuers chanted, danced and sprayed champagne so excitedly that some of their hardhats tumbled off.
The escape capsules, equipped with spring-loaded wheels that will press against the hole's walls, will be lowered into the hole via a winch and the trapped miners brought up one by one.
Golborne and other government officials had insisted that determining whether to encase the whole shaft, only part of it or none of it would be a technical decision, based on the evidence and the expertise of a team of eight geologists and mining engineers.
Encasing the full shaft would have added another week or so before the rescue could begin — if it could actually be done.
The political consequences were inescapable. Chile's success story would evaporate if a miner should get stuck on the way up for reasons that might have been avoided.
Some miners' families wanted the entire shaft lined with pipe, but some engineers involved said the risk of the capsule getting jammed in the unreinforced hole was less than the risk of the pipes getting jammed and ruining their hard-won exit route.
Many experts doubted that encasing the entire shaft was even possible.
"Based on my experiences it cannot be done. Nor does it need to be done," said Fisher. "The rock is very confident down there."
The completion of the escape shaft thrilled Chileans, who have come to see the rescue drama as a test of the nation's character and pride.
"What began as a potential tragedy is becoming a verified blessing," President Sebastian Pinera said in Santiago. "When we Chileans set aside our legitimate differences and unify in a grand and noble cause, we are capable of great things."
Miners who videotaped the drill breaking through the ceiling of an underground chamber were ecstatic.
"On the video, they all started shouting and hugging and celebrating," said James Stefanic, operations manager for the U.S.-Chilean drilling company Geotec.
Associated Press writer Vivian Sequera at the mine contributed to this report.