Chile mining drama, week seven: Who will come out first?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

SANTIAGO - The suspense over when and how the trapped Chilean miners will exit their underground cavern grew in the seventh week of their accidental prison as dribs and drabs of the plans leaked out.

Even as three drills kept boring rescue shafts into the Atacama Desert mine, where the collapse occurred Aug 5, officials started talking Friday about who would be pulled up first in the rescue buckets, and how long it would take.

It will be at least November before the shafts reach 700 metres, where the miners are, at a wide enough diametre - 70 cm - to accommodate a human body.

And in preparing for that moment, rescue officials are discussing how to best divide the 33 gold and copper diggers into three groups for logistics and health reasons.

Jorge Diaz, the rescue team’s head doctor, said the most technologically skillful miners would likely come first. Although no reason was given, the first group up would likely have to be savvy enough to iron kinks in the rescue bucket system being built by the Chilean Navy - a challenge that could require some creativity and technical self-confidence.

The next group would be the weakest and sickest, followed by the last group of the strongest and healthiest, Diaz said.

Diaz indicated that medical tests would be performed to determine how to classify the miners. The final decision would be made by the rescue officer who is to be dropped down into the safety cave in the collapsed mine to assist the miners and explain the logistics, Diaz said.

Officials expect it to take an hour and a half to rescue each miner.

“In terms of the rise, we have stipulated some 20-30 minutes per miner,” said Rene Aguilar, deputy head of the rescue effort.

“But if we are talking about the complete cycle, that means dropping the rescue cage, preparing the miner, lifting it and getting the miner out of the cage, we are talking about one-and-a-half hours per person,” said Aguilar.

Three such cages are being built, although only two are expected to be used. They will be lowered at 1 metre per second through the 700-metre shaft, Aguilar said.

Three shafts are being drilled: Plan A shaft is currently 432 metres deep and 45 cm wide. Plan B shaft, which has already reached the miners, is now being enlarged to a 70 cm diameter to accommodate the miners. The widening has reached 128 metres deep.

The larger, more powerful oil drill that is working on Plan C has reached 48 metres.

Over the past days, the rescue team has focussed on how to help the miners handle psychological and physical challenges once they emerge. Alberto Iturra, the head psychologist on the rescue team, said that workers will not see their families until they have been evaluated at a hospital.

The miners are also receiving training in how to handle the large press of media expected to greet them, and how to handle money they may earn for their stories. Several media outfits are already filming documentaries about the miracle survival of the 33 miners.

Filed under: Accidents and Disasters

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