Three hots and a cot for Chile’s miners, but music players and videogames seen as anti-social

By Vivian Sequera, AP
Monday, September 27, 2010

Chile: trapped miners get Brad Pitt, censored news

SAN JOSE MINE, Chile — They get laundry service, TV, three hot meals a day and even ice cream for dessert. Everyday life for the 33 miners trapped a half-mile underground now includes some of the comforts of home — at least those that can be lowered through narrow holes.

The miners are sleeping on cots that were sent down in pieces and reassembled, and each can look forward every weekend to eight minutes each of video chat time with his family using compact cameras and a phone that was disassembled to fit through the hole.

Settling in for the long wait, they have established a disciplined routine designed not only to keep them mentally and physically fit, but working together.

The plan, according to the rescue effort’s lead psychiatrist, Alberto Iturra Benavides, is to leave them with “no possible alternative but to survive” until drillers finish rescue holes, which the government estimates will be done by early November.

“Surviving means discipline, and keeping to a routine,” Iturra said.

So when the miners do get moments to relax, they can watch television — 13 hours a day, mostly news programs and action movies or comedies, whatever is available that the support team decides won’t be depressing. They’ve seen “Troy” and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” with Brad Pitt and Jim Carrey’s “The Mask.” But no intense dramas — “that would be mental cruelty,” said Iturra.

The news the miners see — which in Chile includes frequent reports about the miners themselves — also is reviewed first by the team above, said Luis Felipe Mujica, the general manager of Micomo, the telecommunications subsidiary of Chile’s state-owned Codelco mining company.

“Of course to do that you need to watch the news first and effectively limit access to certain types of information, or to put it vulgarly, censor it,” said Mujica. “This is a rescue operation, not a reality show.”

Though some miners have requested them, sending down personal music players with headphones and handheld video games have been ruled out, because those tend to isolate people from one another.

“With earphones, if they’re listening to music and someone calls them, asking for help or to warn them about something, they’re not available,” Iturra said. “What they need is to be together.”

Togetherness is what initially saved the miners when an estimated 700,000 tons of rock collapsed Aug. 5 and sealed off the central section of the mine shaft above them, plunging them into darkness and kicking up thick clouds of dust that made it impossible to see, even with their headlamps.

The collapse happened just as the men were gathered for lunch in the refuge — a space about 12 feet by 12 feet (four meters by four meters) with a fortified ceiling nearly 15 feet (4.5 meters) high that normally doubles as a dining room in the lower reaches of the mine. Any sooner or later, and some of the miners probably would have been crushed.

When the dust finally settled about five days later, they could see they were trapped in a large open space, about 1,200 feet (360 meters) long, that runs up the corkscrew-shaped shaft to another workshop about 2,000 feet (600 meters) underground. The space had several mining vehicles with battery and engine power, a chemical toilet and industrial water, which together with their meager emergency food supply enabled them to survive with no help from the outside world.

“They were 17 days in the darkness — 17 days during which in the first five days they could barely breathe from the dust,” Iturra said. “And then they had to say, ‘I didn’t die’ — this in itself stops you from being frightened.”

Since Aug. 22, when a bore hole reached the miners, their rescue and support team has grown to more than 300. It includes communications experts, doctors, psychologists, launderers and cooks in addition to the drilling engineers, in what has become a small village in the middle of an Atacama desert. The crews work in teams and shifts to provide everything necessary for the miners’ survival until they can be pulled out.

Iturra said the miners have taken it upon themselves to solve their problems as miners do — through hard work.

Divided into three groups of 11, they sleep on cots in three separate parts of the mine, work in three shifts and share lunch at noon to maintain unity.

Their routine starts with breakfast — hot coffee or tea with milk and a ham-and-cheese sandwich. Then lots of labor: Removing the loose rock that drops through the bore holes as they are being widened into escape tunnels; cleaning up their trash and emptying the toilet; and attending to the capsules known as “palomas” — Spanish for carrier pigeons — that are lowered to them with supplies.

The miners must quickly remove the contents — food, clean clothes, medicine, family letters and other supplies — and send back up material such as dirty clothes, rolled up like sausages to fit. Each trip down takes 12 to 15 minutes, then four minutes for unloading and five minutes to pull them back up. At least three miners are constantly stationed at the bore hole for this work.

“They know that the paloma never stops — they’re watching for it,” said Alejandro Pino, the rescue operations chief for Chile’s workplace insurance association, which is responsible for preparing the miners’ food and supporting their mental and physical health.

Another bore hole is used for communications, electricity, air and water.

Tubes pump at least 100 liters (106 quarts) of water a day and about 114 cubic meters (4,024 cubic feet) of fresh air an hour into the mine, said Erik Araya, a geologist for Codelco, Chile’s state-owned copper company. That enables the miners to take showers and slightly reduces the sweltering heat down below.

Thanks to the pumped-in air, some lower sections have dropped to about 82 degrees Fahrenheit (28 degrees Celsius), while the upper part of their chamber remains above 90 degrees (32 degrees Celsius).

There is little they can do about the humidity — it remains at 90 percent, Pino said — and many of the miners can still be seen shirtless in images recorded by a video camera the rescue team sent down.

The video connection — using compact cameras with LED lights that enable the men to be seen in color — is proving to be a mixed blessing. The noisy air and water pumps must be turned off during the video chats.

Cristian Barra, a top interior ministry official, said officials have been discouraging the men from making other videos for the general public because “it’s an emotional and physical effort that distracts them from the main goal, which is getting ready for the rescue.”

In general, the miners are wearing T-shirts and shorts, socks and heavy work boots. The rescue team is thinking of sending down running shoes so the men can exercise at least an hour a day, but soon they’ll be moving rock in any case, and the heat remains oppressive.

Although there are no microwave ovens down below, the mine is so warm that the plastic-wrapped meals retain their heat well and the men need only unwrap them. They dine with plates and silverware that were already in the refuge, as well as flexible plastic plates that have been sent down.

Each miner is getting about 2,200 calories a day, the average necessary for an adult to maintain their weight, said Dr. Jose Diaz. His team sent down a scale similar to that used in a fish market to weigh the men, using a harness they added down below. The results suggest the men have regained body mass after a near-starvation diet the first 17 days, Diaz said.

The rescue team reluctantly agreed to the requests from some men for cigarettes, but alcohol was ruled out, part of an overall routine designed to keep the men focused.

While Iturra’s team of psychologists talks with the miners at least twice a day, the men know their survival ultimately depends on each other.

So in addition to twice-daily prayer sessions, they have a kind of group therapy — which the miners call “showing their cards” — in which they meet to discuss disagreements, plans and achievements.

Just what those disagreements have been, if any, has not been made public.

Associated Press Writer Frank Bajak in Bogota, Colombia contributed to this report.

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