CANBERRA, May 6: Two Australian miners trapped a kilometre (half-mile) underground for the past 11 days are unlikely to be rescued until tomorrow because the last few inches of an escape tunnel will have to be carefully dug by hand, officials said.
Workers inched closer to two trapped miners today, but the rescue ran into a new delay when a giant drilling machine had to be re-stabilised after drilling a tunnel through about 12.5 metres of solid rock.
The final one to two metres (3-6 feet) of the rescue tunnel will be dug out by hand by teams of volunteer miners using hand picks and shovels, to ensure vibrations from the digging won't trigger another cave-in.
''Our miners are going to go and get them out, there's no question in my mind now. They're determined to get them out,'' Australian Workers Union national secretary Bill Shorten told reporters.
Rescuers had hoped to drill through 14 metres (49 feet) of rock to reach the two men today with a one-metre wide hole, big enough for them to crawl through to freedom.
But authorities now say the two men face another night below ground at the Beaconsfield Gold Mine on the southern island of Tasmania.
The two miners were trapped in a small wire cage after a cave-in on April 25 when an earthquake sent tonnes of rock crashing down. A third miner was killed.
Brant Webb, 37, and Todd Russell, 34, were found alive last Sunday after being entombed for five days. A huge slab of rock landed on the cage they were working in, protecting them from falling rock.
SENSE OF HUMOUR Food and fresh water was delivered to the men through a small 10-cm plastic pipe, along with clothes, a digital camera, and two iPod players, but the men have had to wait for rescue as workers took extra care not to trigger another cave-in.
Mine manager Matthew Gill said the two men had retained a strong sense of humour about their plight and the media interest in their story, saying they referred to their refuge as a two-star hotel - ''they're the two stars''.
Gill said Webb and Russell had been helping prepare for their rescue and they remained in good spirits.
''Overnight they worked for about six hours injecting grout into the rock around them to help stabilise the ground and minimise the movement of loose material during the final stages of the rescue,'' Gill said in a statement.
''The rescue operation is now entering the most difficult stage. We don't know how long this will take and we do not want to rush and must proceed safely. As miners, Todd and Brant know this and, as reported yesterday, also want us to proceed safely.'' The accident has gripped Australia, with the media covering every detail of the rescue and with media organisations scrambling to secure rights to tell the story.
Russell and Webb are reportedly hoping to walk out of their tomb when rescued.