|Jaime Manalich, Chile's minister of health, was taking part in a rehearsal of the evacuation [AFP]
One of the rescue shafts being drilled to free the 33 trapped miners trapped in Chile could be completed as early as Saturday, Laurence Golborne, the country's mining minister, has said.
Golborne said that once the drill breaks through, it could take anywhere from three to 10 more days to pull the miners to safety.
Chilean officials conducted a rehearsal of the evacuation at the mine site in Copiapo on Thursday.
Exactly how many days the operation will take depends on whether a protective steel sleeve is inserted into the shaft. Golborne said this decision would be made once a video camera can examine the shaft's walls.
Once the shaft is ready, an elite team of three paramedics from the Chilean navy's special forces, along with 13 rescue experts from the Codelco mining company, will be sent down below to co-ordinate the evacuation.
'Delicate and risky'
The rescue is going to be a "delicate and risky operation," Al Jazeera's Monica Villamizar, reporting from Copiapo, said.
Each miner will be hoisted up the shaft in a cage, equipped with a helmet, gloves, water, food and oxygen. Each trip could take up to an hour and a half.
A list has been drawn up of the order in which miners should be brought out, based on daily examinations of their physical and mental health.
"The most able miners will leave first - those who can better describe to the next how they might avoid the potential problems that the capsule might encounter," Renato Navarro, the Chilean navy's submarine chief, said.
"Then those with illnesses or who suffer from one problem or another. And finally the last to surface are the strongest physically or in terms of their character.''
When the miners are brought above ground, they will undergo a medical examination and be given time to readjust to life on the surface.
The miners will be evaluated for approximately 45 minutes, and then moved by helicopter to a "stabilisation area", Jaime Manalich, the minister of health, said.
They will be given special sunglasses to prevent any harm to their eyes from bright light.
"It helps to filter all light rays, all that is in the light spectrum, even blue light can be very harmful to a retina that is not used to such relatively strong light," Alejandro Pino, a rescue worker, said.
Families of those trapped have been waiting above ground since the mine shaft caved in nine weeks ago. Officials had originally estimated the miners might not be released until Christmas.
Relatives camping at the mine site were holding what they hope might be one of the last vigils on Thursday night, Al Jazeera's Villamizar said.
Religious groups from across the country joined some of the families for singing and prayers by firelight.
Sebastian Pinera, the country's president, could also be joining the families at Copiapo soon.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies