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At Chile mine, 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.


FOR THE RECORD:
Chilean miners: An article in the Sept. 5 Section A about trapped Chilean miners gave an incorrect spelling for the name of a survivor of the 1972 Andean plane crash who visited the site. His name is Gustavo Zerbino, not Servino. —


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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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 mine work, including operating La Paloma.

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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.

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“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.”

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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.

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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.

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“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.”

Kraul is a special correspondent.


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