Trapped: Inside the Chilean Mine Collapse

VIDEO: Inside Miners
WATCH Trapped Chilean Miners' Lifeline

Chile's Atacama Desert is said to be the driest place on earth. For now though, the route to the San Jose mine, where 33 men have been trapped for over a month, is carpeted in a rare, lush spectacle: an explosion of purple flowers.

When you arrive at the entrance of the old copper mine you find a rescue operation being watched from around the world.

Around the clock, families of the trapped men sit vigil at the gate in area they call "Camp Hope," where they wait for news from below and advances in the rescue effort. Each family is now being given a chance to speak to and see trapped loved ones, via a new fiber optic video line that snakes down to where the men are trapped.

VIDEO: Inside Miners RescuePlay
Running Water, Electricity for Trapped Miners in Chile

"Daddy, how are you? I love you," said nine-year-old Arlen Yanez to her father Claudio, as she watched him and he watched her. "We are waiting for you."

"I love you lots too," replied Yanez, 2,300 feet below ground, inside the mine that collapsed around him and 32 other men on Aug. 5.

It took 17 days after the collapse for rescuers to discover that all of the trapped men were still alive. The Chilean government took over the rescue effort on the first day and has poured enormous resources into the operation.

There is no specialized equipment for underground rescue on this scale. Everything here is being improvised. Over the weekend, a convoy of 42 huge flatbed trucks -- many them used by the Chilean Army to move tanks -- carted in a massive drill rig normally used for oil wells.

VIDEO: Life Underground for Trapped Chilean MinersPlay
Life Underground for Trapped Chilean Miners

Known as Plan C, it is the third rescue effort here. It is now being assembled and should be operating in about a week.

Plan A, up on the hillside, is a ventilation-shaft drill that has now bored a hole a third of the way down to the miners. Once the hole is complete, it must be widened widened to 26 inches.

And at the bottom of the hill is Plan B, a rig normally used to drill for water. It had made fast progress until its drill bit was shredded by metal in the old mine. The rig has been quiet for days as workers try remove the broken metal pieces with magnets and a claw. It is not easy. They may have remove the rig and drill a new hole.

Chilean Miners: The Long Hot Wait

The men trapped below take comfort from the sound of the drills overhead. Some say they are discouraged that there isn't more activity.

"They are listening (to) what is going on," said Laurence Golborne, Chile's minister of mines. "They know there are three different plans and some of them stop and continue on how the maintenance and problems like this happens."

Government officials keep emphasizing that the rescue is a marathon, not a sprint.

"We will have to wait and see,'' said Golborne. "All the three plans are scheduled to finish in November."

That means the men will have to endure another two months in the hot, humid, cramped conditions of the collapsed mine.

Support from Above

The only connection they have to the world above are two shafts that stretch a half-mile up to the surface.

They are small: just six inches across.

All supplies must be sent to them through a six-foot long tube known as a "paloma" -- Spanish for pigeon, as in carrier pigeon.

That means everything they need -- clothing, food, medicine, sleeping cots -- has to fit into a hole about four inches in diameter.

Comforts from Home

One of the first requests the men sent to the surface was for a television to watch soccer games.

Through the paloma, they were sent a tiny palm-sized television that projects a 50-inch picture.

To make it work, Chilean engineers used the second shaft to connect the trapped men with a life support system that includes electricity, running water, fresh air, and the fiber optic video cable that allows the men to watch live soccer through their tiny TV. It also enables them to speak with rescuers and family members above.

"Down here we're fighting too, just like the Chilean soccer players," says miner Franklin Lobos, a former professional soccer player. "We are fighting to get out of this 2,300-foot hole. Thank you all for your support."

All day and all night, palomas carrying food and supplies are loaded on the surface and dropped to the men half a mile below. It takes ten minutes to get down to the men, ten minutes to unload, and then the paloma is raised and filled again.

Each of the men had lost 20 pounds before rescuers were able to send provisions. They've now been rehydrated and re-nourished and are receiving hot packaged meals, such as meatballs and chicken and rice, daily.

"We have to maintain their muscle mass so that it doesn't atrophy," said Amelia Pons, a nutritionist overseeing their diet. "That's the way to avoid any weight gain because later they will have to go up in that cage that will take them out."

Chilean Miners: The Long Hot Wait

The men have been told that their waists must not exceed 35 inches in order to fit into the round rescue cage each will eventually ride for the three-hour journey to the surface. Evacuating all 33 men is expected to take four days.

The complexities of navigating the physical and mental stress of isolation are closest to challenges faced by astronauts, submarine crews and teams working through the Antarctic winter. With that in mind, the Chilean government invited four of NASA's top life sciences experts to the mine to offer advice.

"This is very much unprecedented," said Dr. J.D. Polk, NASA's chief of space medicine, just after returning to Houston from Chile. "Never have so many people been trapped so long so far down."

"One of the big differences is that our astronauts not only are prepared for this, they also have a date that they are coming back," said Al Holland, a NASA psychologist.

For weeks, the men trapped in the mine had only their headlamps for light. Now, with electric lights, the NASA scientists advised that they use lighting to strictly regulate a day-and-night cycle.

"It is very important to have a regular night-day,'' said Dr. Holland. "It prevents free running the sleep cycle. Where people have free run, in polar stations, it has been very, very negative outcomes. You will have someone sleeping while the other people are awake, on different schedules, and this leads to disintegration of a community."

He added that sleep will help the miners maintain good moods.

Voices from Home

Communication from home, too, is good for the miners. However, conversations over the video link are limited to five minutes weekly.

"There can be too much communication," said Holland. "Just like there can be too much or too little of anything, sleep or what have you."

He added, "There needs to be a distinction between the two groups in order for them to adapt to where they are, what they have to do, to solve those sets of problems."

Which is why the lost art of letter writing is being encouraged. Each day family members take time out to write with personal news, rescue operation updates, and simple words of encouragement.

Wife of Trapped Miner Says He Gains 'Strength from God'

Yessica Cortez, three months pregnant, knows how important the letters have been to her husband, Victor Zamora.

"He's not used to being closed in," she said. "I don't think anyone is accustomed to being enclosed for more than a month half a mile underground.

"You have to have a lot of strength to be down there. I think he gets his strength from God. It's a test."

Silvia Segovia's brother Victor is trapped below, along with two of their cousins. She cherishes each letter he sends up.

She read part of one letter from her brother to ABC News: "Hi Silvia, you've given me so much support, I'll always be grateful… in the past I haven't been very affectionate with the people close to me. I want you to know that you are a very good sister."

Elizabeth Segovia's husband, Ariel, is one of the 33, but she has been unable to stand vigil with the other family members, as she has been in the final weeks of her pregnancy with the couple's third child.

They'd originally planned to name the baby, their first daughter, Carolina. But with Ariel still trapped in the mine, they instead decided to name her Esperanza, which means "hope."

Esperanza Elizabeth Ticona was born at noon today, a local newspaper reported this afternoon.

The family recorded Esperanza's birth on video and they hope to transmit it to Ticona in the mine.

Segovia said she dreams of the day her family will be reunited. "I've imagined so many things for that day," she said, "I'll be the first to embrace him, I'll be there at his side."

Watch the full story on "Nightline" tonight at 11:35 p.m. ET