A Bay Area author and native of Chile visited the mine where a team of hundreds is working to rescue 33 men trapped a half-mile underground.
San Rafael resident Isabel Allende, renowned for novels such as "The House of Spirits," was introduced by President Sebastian Pinera Sunday at a brief news conference as a great Chilean -- "perhaps the best ambassador that our country has had."
Allende was in Chile for bicentennial celebrations and accepted the president's invitation to visit the mine.
"I come from California and I travel all over the world, and all the television screens of the world are showing the faces of those 33 miners and the name of Chile," said Allende.
"I've received hundreds of messages from people praying for them, from people who send messages of support, positive energy and thanks to the people who are above ground, working day and night without rest to rescue their comrades," she added. "For me this is very emotional."
Also Sunday, Chile's president said his government has done everything within its power to rescue the miners who have been trapped underground for 47 days and counting. But he would not venture a guess as to when they'll be pulled out.
Pinera spoke as a huge oil industry drill began carving a third escape tunnel that could potentially provide the first way to extricate the men through a half-mile of solid rock.
"Today for the first time we have three machines working simultaneously. We don't know when they will reach them. But we know one thing -- with the help of God, they will reach them," Pinera declared after touring the drilling operation and meeting with the miners' families.
The latest drill, a mammoth 150-foot-tall (45-meter) structure, can pound through 60 to 90 feet (18 to 27 meters) of rock a day. And while the other machines must first bore narrower holes and gradually expand their diameter, the Rig 24 can carve a 28-inch-wide shaft -- just wide enough to pull a man through -- in a single pass.
Its tremendous power increases the risk of causing underground collapses, however, so engineers are aiming it at a point in the mine below the men are holed up.
Once this "Plan C" machine reaches the miners, the rescuers will fortify the walls of the tunnel with iron tubing -- 23.5 inches in diameter, in 72-foot (24 meter) sections -- to prevent it from collapsing around the miners as they are pulled to the surface. Casing the tunnel alone will take eight days, rescue coordinator Andre Sougarret explained.
"We have to be very conservative," Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said, noting that the third drill was assembled in 19 days, two ahead of schedule. "We are making small advances, but we do not want to generate too many expectations. ... It is scheduled to end the beginning of November, but if we can do it better, we will do it."