Trapped Chilean Miners: Drilling of Rescue Tunnel To Begin This Weekend

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"For the first time yesterday, we talked about the time frame that is involved in the rescue, that as you may know is a three month time frame, 90 days beginning now," Chile's health minister Jaime Manalich said Wednesday.

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As family members on the surface are granted more access to their loved ones below, the emotional fragility of the situation became more and more apparent. By early next week, a permanent phone line will be established so that they can talk with their families.

In El Mercurio, letters from the miners to their families were published. One of the miners, Raul Bustos, told his wife, "The words you sent me made me cry....My God left us alive by a miracle and with a purpose."

On Wednesday, family members erupted in cheers when Chilean President Sebastian Pinera promised to reunite them with the miners, but he warned it will take time. Pinera also offered words of comfort to the miners.

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"You will not be forgotten," Pinera told the miners by phone.

Mine Has Poor Safety Record

Chilean officials said Wednesday that the Chilean mine where 33 men remain trapped 2,258 feet below ground has a poor safety record and a history of violations.

Senator Baldo Prokurica, a member of Chile's Senate mining commission, said that the two owners of the mine pushed exploitation beyond safe standards. He said that the five miles of tunnels inside the main shaft of the mine are like "Swiss cheese."

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The main shaft of the gold and copper mine runs like a corkscrew under a mountain in Chile's Atacama Desert. Standard rock separation between a mine's various levels is typically 40 feet. In the main shaft of the mine where the August 5 collapse occurred, the levels were separated by a mere 26 feet, making the mine extremely unstable.

A U.S. expert told ABC News that Chile's mine safety record is better than that of the United States, but Chile's president has fired a number of senior mine safety officials and promised to pursue criminal charges in the wake of the mine collapse.

The San Jose Mine is also located on a geological fault, making earthquakes a constant threat. On Wednesday morning, an earthquake struck at the site of the mine. The 4.5 magnitude quake wasn't felt by many and there were no reports of damage.

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Still, rescue workers say the threat of earthquakes and the age of the mine will make drilling the rescue tunnel tricky.

NASA, We Have A Problem

To keep the men mentally and physically healthy, Chilean officials called on space-age help from NASA this week.

The men are trapped in a hot, humid 600-square-foot shelter nearly a half mile below ground. The space is too small and too poorly ventilated for the men to sleep there so they sleep in other parts of the mine. There is no toilet and so the men are using a tunnel further away.

"This situation is very similar to that of the astronauts who are in space stations for months," he health minister told The Santiago Times Tuesday.

A NASA spokesman told The Houston Chronicle the agency was prepared to help and is reportedly considering the best way to do so.

Astronauts on the International Space Station generally spend around six months in very cramped quarters with only a handful of fellow crew members, according to NASA.gov.

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