Race to save Chilean miners trapped underground from spiralling into depression continues

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Thursday, September 2, 2010

Rescue efforts to save the 33 Chilean miners trapped 700 meters from the surface continue. After seeing video images filmed by one of the miners Ruth Contreras, the mother of Carlos Bravo, who is trapped in the mine, said the "he's skinny, bearded and it was painful to see him with his head hanging down, but I am so happy to see him alive."
Image: Desierto Atacama.

It has emerged that the 33 Chilean miners trapped underground after the mine they were working in collapsed could be brought to the surface in a shorter time than was initially feared. While officials publicly announced that the men would not be brought to the surface until Christmas, sources inside technical meetings have revealed that they could in fact be on the surface by early November. The news comes as families were allowed to speak by radio-telephone to their trapped loved ones on Sunday. Over the weekend, video images filmed by the miners emerged showing the miners playing dominoes at a table and singing the Chilean national anthem. The miners also used the camera to send video messages to their families on the surface, saying that they regularly broke into tears, but were feeling better having received food and water.

The grainy nightvision images, filmed on a high definition camcorder that was sent down a small shaft to the mine, show the men in good spirits, chanting "long live Chile, and long live the miners." They are unshaven and stripped to the waist because of the heat underground, and are seen wearing white clinical trousers that have been designed to keep them dry. Giving a guided tour of the area they are occupying, Mario Sepúlveda, one of the miners, explains they have a "little cup to brush our teeth", and a place where they pray each day. "We have everything organized," he tells the camera. Gesturing to the table in the center of the room, he says that "we meet here every day. We plan, we have assemblies here every day so that all the decisions we make are based on the thoughts of all 33." Another unidentified miner asks to rescuers, "get us out of here soon, please." A thermometer is shown in the video, reading 29.5C (85F).

As the film continues, it becomes evident that the miners have stuck a poster of a topless woman on the wall. The miners appear shy, and one man puts his hand to his face, presumably dazzled by the light mounted on the cameraman's helmet. One miner sent a message to his family. "Be calm", he says. "We're going to get out of here. And we thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your efforts." Another said that the miners are "sure that there are people here in Chile that are big people, that are powerful people, that are intelligent people, and they have the technology and they will all work together to get us out of here." Speaking to the camera, one says: "we have had the great fortune that trapped in this mine there are good, professional people. We have electricians, we have mechanics, we have machine operators and we will let you know that while you are working to rescue us on the surface, we are down here ready to help you too." It has been reported that Mario Gómez, 63, has become the group's "spiritual leader", having worked in the mines for over fifty years. He has requested that materials to build a shrine be sent down to the cavern.

Upon seeing the video in a private screening, family members, who are living in a small village of tents at the entrance to the San José copper-gold mine—which they have named Camp Hope—were elated. "He's skinny, bearded and it was painful to see him with his head hanging down, but I am so happy to see him alive", said Ruth Contreras, the mother of Carlos Bravo, who is trapped in the mine. The video, of which only a small portion has been released to the public, shows the miners, many of them wearing helmets, cracking jokes and thanking the rescuers for their continued efforts. The supplies are being sent to the men through a small shaft only twelve centimeters wide, and a laboratory has been set up with the purpose of designing collapsible cots and miniature sandwiches, which can be sent down such a narrow space.

CNN reported on Friday that "officials are splitting the men into two shifts so one group sleeps while the other works or has leisure time .. On average, each man has lost 22 pounds (10 kilograms) since they became trapped three weeks ago, and dehydration remains a threat. But a survey of the men indicates that at least nine miners are still too overweight to fit through the proposed rescue shaft. Initially, the miners survived by draining water from a water-cooled piece of equipment. To stay hydrated in the 90-degree mine, each miner must drink eight or nine pints of water per day."

But while there are jubilant celebrations on the surface that the miners are alive, officials are now nervous that the miners could become depressed, trapped in a dark room the size of a small apartment. Chilean health minister Jaime Mañalich said that, on the video, he saw the telltale signs of depression. "They are more isolated, they don't want to be on the screen, they are not eating well", he said. "I would say depression is the correct word." He said that doctors who had watched the video had observed the men suffering from "severe dermatological problems." Dr. Rodrigo Figueroa, head of the trauma, stress and disaster unit at the Catholic University in Santiago, Chile, explained that "following the euphoria of being discovered, the normal psychological reaction would be for the men to collapse in a combination of fatigue and stress ... People who are trained for emergencies – like these miners – tend to minimize their own needs or to ignore them. When it is time to ask for help, they don't." NASA has advised emergency workers that entertaining the miners would be a good idea. They are to be sent a television system complete with taped football matches. Another dilemma facing Mañalich is whether the miners should be permitted to smoke underground. While nicotine gum has been delivered to the miners, sending down cigarettes is a plan that has not been ruled out.

The message sent up confirming that the miners were alive. "We are fine in the shelter the 33" [of us], it reads.

With the news that drilling of the main rescue tunnel was expected to begin on Monday, officials have informed the media that they hope to have the miners out of the mine by Christmas—but sources with access to technical meetings have suggested that the miners could actually be rescued by the first week of November. A news report described the rescue plan—"the main focus is a machine that bores straight down to 688m and creates a chimney-type duct that could be used to haul the miners out one by one in a rescue basket. A second drilling operation will attempt to intercept a mining tunnel at a depth of roughly 350m. The miners would then have to make their way through several miles of dark, muddy tunnels and meet the rescue drill at roughly the halfway point of their current depth of 688m." Iván Viveros Aranas, a Chilean policeman working at Camp Hope, told reporters that Chile "has shown a unity regardless of religion or social class. You see people arriving here just to volunteer, they have no relation at all to these families."

But over the weekend, The New York Times reported that the "miners who have astonished the world with their discipline a half-mile underground will have to aid their own escape — clearing 3,000 to 4,000 tons of rock that will fall as the rescue hole is drilled, the engineer in charge of drilling said Sunday ... The work will require about a half-dozen men working in shifts 24 hours a day." Andrés Sougarret, a senior engineer involved in operating the drill said that "the miners are going to have to take out all that material as it falls."

The families of those trapped were allowed to speak to them by radio-telephone on Sunday—a possibility that brought reassurance both the miners and those on the surface. The Intendant of the Atacama Region, Ximena Matas, said that there had been "moments of great emotion." She continued to say that the families "listened with great interest and they both felt and realized that the men are well. This has been a very important moment, which no doubt strengthens their [the miners'] morale." The phone line is thought to be quite temperamental, but it is hoped that soon, those in the mine and those in Camp Hope will be able to talk every day. "To hear his voice was a balm to my heart ... He is aware that the rescue is not going to happen today, that it will take some time. He asked us to stay calm as everything is going to be OK ... He sounded relaxed and since it was so short I didn't manage to ask anything. Twenty seconds was nothing", said said Jessica Cortés, who spoke to her husband Víctor Zamora, who was not even a miner, but a vehicle mechanic. "He went in that day because a vehicle had broken down inside the mine ... At first they told us he had been crushed [to death]."

Esteban Rojas sent up a letter from inside the mine, proposing to his long-time partner Jessica Yáñez, 43. While they have officially been married for 25 years, their wedding was a civil service—but Rojas has now promised to have a church ceremony which is customary in Chile. "Please keep praying that we get out of this alive. And when I do get out, we will buy a dress and get married," the letter read. Yáñez told a newspaper that she thought he was never going to ask her. "We have talked about it before, but he never asked me ... He knows that however long it takes, I'll wait for him, because with him I've been through good and bad."


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