At Chile mines, help comes in many forms

Above
ground, the scene is alternately somber and surreal: Anxious loved ones,
fingering crucifixes blessed by Pope Benedict XVI.

Four
scientists from NASA, warning that light deprivation is
their greatest worry. A Mexican norteno band in black suits and cowboy
hats, offering a USB flash drive with its songs for the men. And now, giving
advice on keeping spirits up, survivors of the 1972 Andean plane crash that
inspired the movie “Alive.”

Below ground, a stomach-dropping 2,300 feet down, almost as deep as two Empire
State Buildings laid end to end, are the men.

They cannot see the floodlights that illuminate TV reporters from as far away
as Japan and France as they interview family members. The only light to pierce
their midnight darkness is the shaky beams from their headlamps and the eerie
green glow of little plastic tubes that yield their chemical glimmer when
snapped in half.

For a
month now, the 33 Chilean copper miners have been trapped together in their
600-square-foot “refuge,” after they miraculously survived an Aug. 5
cave-in at the San Jose mine here in northern Chile. As a nation, and the rest of the world, watches transfixed,
experts have swarmed the site to offer advice on how to cope.

But only “Los 33,” as they call themselves, really know what it is
like to live with the awful darkness and isolation.

In their room, about the size of a modest one-bedroom apartment, the men have
endured 90-degree temperatures, suffocating humidity, the skin-crawling feeling
of being buried alive —and the knowledge that they may remain trapped for at
least two more months as rescuers dig through solid rock to reach them. In two
videos released by the government, the men are shown sweaty and emaciated but
bravely smiling, waving a Chilean flag and saluting the camera.

Andre Sougarret, the lead government engineer in the rescue effort, said Friday
that three competing holes will be drilled 200 yards from one another in
efforts to open up an escape hatch for the miners as quickly as possible. One
is in progress and has so far been dug down 130 feet. The second will start
operation Sunday, and the third by Sept. 18 —Chile’s independence day.
Engineers have told the miners that the targeted rescue date is sometime in the
second half of November.

Keeping the miners healthy, physically and, perhaps more important, mentally,
is the daunting task the Chilean government now faces. At a Friday news
conference, NASA and Chilean officials acknowledged that they have considered
the possibility that one miner could crack and harm others.

Alicia Campos agonizes over the emotional health of her 27-year-old son,
Daniel, one of the trapped men.

“I’m worried that the whole experience could leave a scar on his mental
state, the effect of being down there so long,” said Campos, who traveled
more than 500 miles from her hometown of Marchigue to be close to him.
“It’s natural to think it is driving him crazy.”

Each of the miners has undergone a simple psychological evaluation during a
one-hour medical consultation with a team of five doctors and has filled out a
long-form questionnaire.

Alberto Iturra, a psychologist who is a member of the team monitoring the
miners, said he believes the miners generally are “very healthy.” The
written answers are more telling than the brief appearances the workers have
made in the two videos, he said.

“The force of the handwriting, their mental organization it shows, gives
us more to work with,” Iturra said.

But Adriana Espinoza, a psychology professor at the University of Chile,
expressed worry about their emotional states.

“Psychological concerns are high because when they first found the 33
miners, they realized there were five of them showing symptoms of depression,
and they were worried that could have an impact on the rest of the people, the
rest of the miners and on the family members,” Espinoza said. “That
could be detrimental because they are going to be there a long, long
time.”

At the Chilean government’s request, NASA last week sent a team from the
Johnson Space Center to share experiences and give pointers gleaned from
sending astronauts into space for long periods.

Michael Duncan, the NASA team leader, said the challenges of the rescue are
“unprecedented.”

“The Chileans are basically writing the book on how to rescue this many
people, this deep, after this long underground,” Duncan said.

At a news conference Friday evening, he detailed the advice the U.S. space
agency gave to the Chileans, noting the similarities between the situation of
the miners and the “long-duration isolation” that astronauts
experienced.

The miners, he said, need to be compensated for the loss of daylight, both in
the vitamin D they are missing and in the “sleep-waking” routine
that’s been interrupted.

“We’ve been impressed with the planning, quality of healthcare, compassion
and support provided to the miners and their families,” said Duncan, who
is a physician. “All the world is hoping this will be successful.”

A 4-inch-wide shaft is the men’s lifeline to the world above.

Spirits have improved, Health Minister Jaime Manalich said, since officials
have been able to deliver shirts, rubber shoes and cots to the miners through
the narrow tube. The men call it La Paloma, or the pigeon.

Officials also lower daily rations of food through the tube. (On Friday, the
men had bread and honey, cauliflower and rice, fortified milk, pork pate and
pasta salad.) The miners use a chemical toilet also sent down via the shaft;
they’ve placed it in a tunnel far from their communal “living room”
and travel back and forth to the privy in a small gas-powered mining vehicle.

The fact that the miners can now brush their teeth and wash their hair and
clothes has “lifted their spirits,” psychologist Iturra said.

The men, whose ages range from 19 to 63, have organized themselves into work
teams with specific jobs “so they don’t think about their
disappointment,” said Clementina Gomez, aunt of 19-year-old miner Jimmy
Sanchez.

One team handles food and water, another cleanup activities and a third minework, including operating La Paloma.

Their daily routines also include regularly scheduled periods for prayer,
exercise — walking around their chamber — and games, including dominoes and
dice throwing.

Victor Segovia, 49, has emerged as the miners’ chronicler and is keeping a
daily account of their activities. His daughter Maritza, interviewed at the
tent where she and four siblings keep a vigil, said he is a compulsive writer
who leaves lengthy notes every time he leaves the house or goes shopping to
explain in detail what he is doing.

“He has also written me a letter every day since they were found. Here is
what I’ve just received from him,” Maritza said, waving a crumpled notebook
sheet covered on both sides with her father’s blocky handwriting.

According to several family members, Mario Gomez, the oldest of the miners, is
the spiritual leader and organizes the prayer sessions. His wife, Liliana
Ramirez, said perhaps it is her husband’s stable personality and deep religious
faith that have made him someone the men turn to.

“He’s a spiritual man of very few words, but he is friendly to everyone.
He has worked in the mines since he was 12 years old,” Ramirez said.

When she talked to him, she said, “all he has said is, ‘Don’t worry about
me.’ He’s more concerned with how the family is doing.”

On Saturday, four of the survivors of the 1972 crash of a plane carrying a
Uruguayan rugby team appeared at the mine to give encouragement to the miners
via a newly installed fiber-optic line.

“We’re going to tell them to celebrate that they are alive, that no one
was killed in the accident, to enjoy every moment,” said Gustavo Servino,
one of the survivors, whose story of living more than two months in the snowy
Andes was turned into a book and movie. “We have to concentrate on
solutions, not problems.”

Juan Vergara, a staff psychologist in the Copiapo municipality, said the
families have shown considerable resilience in light of the fact that two days
after the cave-in, the government said efforts to rescue the miners had failed
and withdrew rescue equipment from the site.

“Many assumed it was a lost cause,” Vergara said.

But after some family members complained that it was too early to give up, the
government drilled several holes, three of which found the refuge and tunnel
system where the men are sequestered.

In addition to worrying about the miners’ rescue, families are also concerned
about their future livelihoods in light of the mining company’s declaration of
bankruptcy late last month. Will the miners have jobs to go back to?

The government moved last week to allay those fears, promising to find other
jobs not just for the 33 trapped miners after their hoped-for rescue but for
all 300 San Jose mine workers out of work because of the closure.

On Friday, representatives of the Underground Mine Workers Union appeared at
the mine to announce that they were giving each of the trapped miners $13,000.
An international fund to support the miners had collected $750,000.

“He seems happy with the little he has,” said Campos, the mother,
whose son had been working in the mine for six months when the accident
happened, attracted by relatively high wages offered by the owners. “He
told me in our talk that he was happy that he has quit smoking down
there.”

But she said that although her son was accentuating the positive, she knew he
was afraid and desperate to get out. She vowed not to leave the mine until he
is rescued, however long it takes.

“You can’t get anything positive from this,” she said. “He is
suffering down there.”

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