Trapped Chilean Miners Told They Could Be Stuck Three Months

Government officials and psychologists worry about depression among the men.

Aug. 25, 2010 — -- The 33 men trapped 2,258 feet below ground in a Chilean mine now know that it could be another three months before they will be free.

Government officials and psychologists decided the men had to be told the truth.

"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.

As family members on the surface are granted more access to their loved ones below, the emotional fragility of all this becomes more and more apparent.

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."

Today, 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.

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

Mine Has Poor Safety Record

Chilean officials say 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."

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 12 meters. In the main shaft of the mine where the August 5 collapse occurred, the levels were separated by a mere 8 meters, 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. This morning, an earthquake struck at the site of the mine. The 4.5 magnitude quake wasn't felt by many and there are no reports of damage.

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

As the 33 men enter their twentieth day of accidental captivity fully aware that they may be trapped underground longer than any other miners in history, Chilean officials are looking for space-age help from NASA to keep the miners physically and mentally healthy.

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," Chile's health minister Jaime Manalich told The Santiago Times.

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

Rescuers have been communicating with the miners through two small holes drilled down to the shelter.

Now that the miners know they face a months-long journey inside the cramped mine, they have requested and received diversions like a domino set and several packs of playing cards. They have also requested that wine be sent down so they can celebrate the country's independence day, which isn't for another month.

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

Psychological counseling was available at the site of the mine as early as Monday, along with doctors to monitor the miners' physical health.

"We all need and are used to a certain amount of physical and psychological space around us," Simon Rego, director of Clinical Training at the American Institute for Cognitive Therapy, told ABC News Monday. "As a result of being trapped, both of these variables will be compromised, along with other 'freedoms' that we normally take for granted."

Rescue Tunnel Drilling Expected to Start This Weekend

A convoy carrying the huge drill that will bore the 26-inch wide hole to liberate 33 trapped Chilean miners arrived at the remote mine site to cheers Tuesday afternoon.

With horns blaring and family members of the miners cheering, the procession inched its way up to the rescue area where the miners are trapped.

It is expected to take several days to assemble to drill. Once it is operating it will be slow going -- perhaps 30 to 60 feet per day. Laurence Golborne, Chile's mines minister, said Tuesday the unstable rock and the safety of the trapped miners prevent the use of faster drilling methods.

Rescue workers are considering two approaches to drilling the rescue tunnel. One involves drilling at an angle from a hillside to reach the men. It's a shorter route but less stable. The second possibility is drilling from the top of a hill straight down to the men. That route will take longer but experts think it is more stable.

Maria Segovia's brother is one of the trapped miners. She's been camping out by the mine since the collapse August 5.

"They are strong, they are miners and they know it won't be easy to get them out," Segovia said. "This is going to teach the world about survival, about the will to live."

Mental Health of Miners

Experts say support from family is vital to the miners' mental health during their ordeal.

"Knowing that physical and emotional needs of their spouses, partners, children, parents, siblings and other close family members are being addressed will go a long way toward sustaining the psychological resilience of the miners," John A. Fairbank, professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University Medical Center, said Tuesday.

The discovery on Sunday that the trapped Chilean miners are alive couldn't have come soon enough; the miners were just days away from running out of their meager food supply.

Every two days since the August 5 mine collapse, the men would eat two spoonfuls of canned fish, a half cup of milk, half of a cracker and a little canned peach. The men managed to stretch a 48-hour food supply into rations to last 20 days.

Rescuers think the men have each lost at least 17.6 pounds and each run the risk of developing ulcers. Rescuers have given the men glucose and rehydration tablets to restore their digestive systems.

"The idea is to administer glucose solution to them in large quantities and test their tolerance by oral ingestion," Paola Newman, head of health for the Atacama region of Chile, said Tuesday.

The Rescue Effort

Although the rescue effort is a slow, deliberate process, Gov. Joe Manchin of West Virginia -- a state widely known for its dependence on the mining industry and experience in substantial mine rescue operations -- is hopeful the Chilean government's estimate is conservative.

"They'll get through this. I'll bet we get them out quicker than that," Manchin told "GMA" Tuesday.

After seven failed attempts, rescuers finally drilled a six-inch hole down to where the men are holed up on Sunday. When the drill came back to the surface, two notes were attached to it, one from the eldest of the miners, 63-year-old Mario Gomez. He wrote to his wife, translated from Spanish, "I want to tell everyone that I'm good and we'll surely come out OK."

Gomez's wife, Lila Ramirez, told "GMA" she will wait as long as necessary to see her husband but will never allow him to go back into a mine after he comes up.

ABC News' Kim Carollo and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Click here to return to the "World News" page.