Chilean Miners Could Be Stuck In 600 Sq. Foot Space Until Christmas

Rescuers send food, medicines down 6-inch hole, the miners' sole window to world

August 23, 2010, 4:53 PM

August 23, 2010 — -- Rejoice and relief after the discovery that 33 miners trapped in a Chilean mine are still alive has yielded to extensive planning on how to treat and care for the trapped men in what might be a four-month process to free them.

The men's window to the world is a mere six-inch wide hole, the same hole that rescue workers put a camera down yesterday giving anxious families further proof that their loved ones are alive. Just a few words scrawled in red paint brought the sweetest of news: "All 33 of us are fine in the shelter."

"We are happy," said Caterine Avalos whose brother is trapped underground. "This is what we have been waiting 17 days to hear."

The 32 Chilean men and one Bolivian man have already been trapped for 17 days and experts say that it could take until Christmas to free them from the gold and copper mine.

2,258 feet Below Ground

When the mine collapsed on August 5, the men journeyed down seven miles of zigzagging tunnels, 2,258 feet to get to the mine's shelter.

After seven failed attempts, rescuers finally drilled a six-inch hole down to where the men are holed up. 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, "I want to tell everyone that I'm good and we'll surely come out ok.

Now, the hole that let the world know the men are still alive will be used to sustain them. Engineers worked through the night to coat the walls of the bore-hole with a metallic gel to help reinforce the hole and make it easier for rescuers and family to send the men materials.

The men are surviving under grueling conditions, entombed in a space that's just 600 square feet, the size of a hotel room. The temperature: a sweltering 95 degrees with 95 percent humidity. They have a little electricity from a truck engine. They have dug into the dirt floor of the mine with a backhoe to reach tiny amounts of water to drink, but they reportedly only had food for two days. The men somehow stretched a food supply for only 48 hours into 408 hours.

"People may say this is not successful because these men are trapped," Ellen Smith, managing editor of Mine Safety & Health News, said. "I say this is incredibly successful because these men survived and they will be able to survive."

Using a hose, rescue workers are sending down packages called "palomas," Spanish for pigeons. Each paloma takes an hour to reach the men. So far, they've sent down salted water to hydrate the men, gel tablets with nutrition as well as medicine to help nurse the men back from the brink of starvation. They will also lower oxygen and questionnaires for the men to fill out about their health.

Mental Health of Miners

While nutrients and oxygen are needed to keep the men alive, many are worried about their mental health holding up at the prospect of months spent thousands of feet below ground.

"They need to understand what we know up here at the surface, that it will take many weeks for them to reach the light," Chile's Health Minister Jaime Manalich said.

Rescuers plan to send small microphones down the hole to allow the men to speak with their families during the long wait.

To rescue the trapped miners, workers will try to dig a wider 27-inch shaft directly to the men. The men would be raised up one at a time. Two of the miners, however, are obese and it's not clear how they will fit. Rescuers hope the men will lose weight in the mine to fit through the hole.

The miners seem to sense the journey ahead of them. In the note to his wife, Mario Gomez scrawled, "patience and faith, God is great and the help of my God is going to make it possible to leave this mine alive."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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