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Once trapped underground themselves, Chilean miners have some advice for the Thai boys stuck in a cave

Once trapped underground themselves, Chilean miners have some advice for the Thai boys stuck in a cave
Trapped Chilean miners pose inside the San Jose Mine on Sept. 17, 2010, near Copiapo, Chile. (Handout / AFP/Getty Images)

For two of the Chilean miners who survived their own traumatic experience of being trapped underground in 2010, the ordeal experienced by the young Thai soccer team and their coach sounds all too familiar.

Omar Reygadas and Claudio Acuna were among 33 miners who were stuck 2,300 feet below ground in a northern Chilean copper mine for 69 days in 2010. They were eventually rescued in dramatic fashion before an audience of tens of millions of television viewers worldwide.

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Like the Thai youths and their coach, they were the focus of intense media scrutiny during their ordeal. Their against-all-odds rescue involved each of them being lifted in a narrow, elevator-like chamber that was suspended by a cable into a hole drilled through solid rock.

Afterward they became worldwide celebrities and were the subject of a Hollywood film. They experienced emotional highs but also the negative after-effects of their psychological trauma.

In telephone interviews with The Times on Thursday, they urged authorities to keep the boys focused on the positive, such as being reunited with their families, while avoiding any words or actions that could make them feel more like victims than they already do.

That was also the advice offered in a video uploaded this week by fellow miner Mario Sepulveda, who encouraged the boys and their families to keep the faith. A rescue is assured “as long as we put ourselves in prayer [and] if the government of that country makes all possible efforts,” he said.

Psychologist Alberto Iturra, who headed the team that treated the miners’ mental trauma after the rescue, said it will be important for the youths to return to their normal lives as soon as possible.

Reygadas, 64, who now works as a truck driver in the northern Chilean city of Copiapo, near the mine site, said being young is an asset “in a physical sense [because] they have more stamina. … But the mental part may play against them.”

Reygadas suffers from a mood disorder and dizziness, which he blames on his experiences of being trapped. He has had trouble finding work and says most days he feels depressed.

Chilean miner Omar Reygadas, center, one of the 33 rescued from the San Jose mine, arrives in 2010 for a Mass near Copiapo, Chile.
Chilean miner Omar Reygadas, center, one of the 33 rescued from the San Jose mine, arrives in 2010 for a Mass near Copiapo, Chile. (Claudio Santana / AFP/Getty Images)

Hearing the news about the Thai boys took him back to “the first moments” that he and the others realized they were trapped and “the days we were uncertain whether we’d ever get out,” Reygadas said.

"Hope is the last thing that dies, and now everything depends on the rescuers working to save them and the coach who should motivate them to hang on until they get out of there," Reygadas said. “They shouldn’t worry about crying or being scared.”

He said that in the miners’ case, each reacted differently to the initial shock of being trapped, some with calm, some with despair. Reygadas said he was able to keep his cool more than others because he had been trapped in mines several times, usually for a few hours, before that fateful day in August 2010 when a landslide closed off their means of escape.

Setting up routines of organizing food, standing guard in shifts and considering ways of contacting the outside helped them occupy the time, he said.

Acuna, 43, who works as a farm laborer and driver in the northern Chilean city of Ovalle, said hearing about the trapped Thai boys also gave him flashbacks to his time in the mine. He said he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and is struggling to support his family, which includes four children.

“During the day, I close my eyes and I see myself in the mine again,” Acuna said. The news has even provoked a dream in which he dives into water and attempts to rescue the boys, he added.

"They are probably devastated thinking about their families and when they will be rescued, and it’s normal to worry like that,” Acuna said. “I would tell the boys not to despair, to wait and pray, because God knows what he’s doing.”

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Iturra, the psychologist, said in a telephone interview that although no one can prepare for the surprise of being stranded, methods can be used to reduce the stress of waiting for rescue.

The miners devised “a culture of survival that kept them healthy and alive,” Iturra said. “Each one assumed meaningful leadership at different times, since no one could withstand the pressure throughout the days and in all circumstances.“

Based on what he has read, Iturra said the Thai boys’ soccer coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, “has been the key to keeping the team together.” His efforts to maintain a positive attitude among group members — which reportedly include leading the boys in meditation — is key to overcoming the anguish that is to be expected in this situation.

“When children face new situations, they get scared for a while, but when they realize there are not negative consequences for them, they adapt much more easily to change,” Iturra said.

He recommended that the kids’ swimming and diving lessons be given as a positive experience to make it resemble summer camp.

“If handled correctly, this could become a very important event in their lives, one that leaves no damage and could even boost their self-esteem,” Iturra said. “With our miners, we unfortunately made mistakes, [including] not returning them quickly enough to their normal lives.”

Special correspondents Poblete and Kraul reported from Santiago and Bogota, Colombia, respectively.

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