Image: Relatives of trapped miners
Roberto Candia  /  AP
Relatives of 33 trapped miners wait for news outside the collapsed mine San Jose in Copiapo, Chile, Wednesday. The miners have been trapped since the shaft they were working in collapsed on Aug. 5.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 8/26/2010 7:21:49 PM ET 2010-08-26T23:21:49

Chilean officials are taking measures to alleviate depression among the 33 miners trapped in a collapsed mine after telling them it might be months before rescuers will reach them, according to a report.

Health Minister Jaime Manalich said the officials told the group that "they would not be rescued before the Fiestas Patrias, and that we hoped to get them out before Christmas," the AFP news agency reported. Fiestas Patrias is Chile's Independence Day celebration, held on Sept.18.

Manalich told AFP that the miners, who are trapped 2,300 feet underground, reacted calmly to the news. The group has been trapped since Aug. 5.

The news service said the government was taking steps — from getting doses of anti-depressants for the men to sending down fresh clothes and games — to help keep them physically and mentally fit for the grueling wait ahead.

"We expect that after the initial euphoria of being found, we will likely see a period of depression and anguish," Manalich said. "We are preparing medication for them. It would be naive to think they can keep their spirits up like this."

The government has asked NASA and Chile's submarine fleet for tips on survival in extreme, confined conditions, and are looking to send them space mission-like rations.

"We hope to define a secure area where they can establish various places — one for resting and sleeping, one for diversion, one for food, another for work," Manalich said.

Establishing a daily and nightly routine is important, the minister said, adding that having fun also will be critical. The rescue team is creating an entertainment program "that includes singing, games of movement, playing cards. We want them to record songs, to make videos, to create works of theater for the family."

Second bore hole finished
Some mining experts believe it will take far less than four months to dig the tunnel.

Larry Grayson, a professor of mining engineering at Penn State University, said it could take just 25 to 30 days to reach the miners.

Gustavo Lagos, a professor at the Catholic University of Chile's Center for Mining, estimated the job could be done in two months if all goes well and four months if it all bogs down.

Still, officials are also planning exercise and other activities to keep the miners healthy and trim, using some of the passages that remain accessible to the miners, Manalich said.

Even though the miners have lost around 22 pounds each, Chilean officials are trying to ensure they don't bulk up before their rescue. They said the miners would have to be no more than 35 inches around the waist to make it out of the tunnel.

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They remain days away from being able to eat solid food because they went hungry for so long. Rescuers have sent down a high-energy glucose gel, and on Wednesday they gave the miners cans of a milk-like drink enriched with calories and protein.

The escape tunnel will be about 26 inches wide — the diameter of a typical bike tire — and stretch for more than 2,200 feet through solid rock. That's more than 80 inches in circumference, but rescuers also have to account for the space of the basket that will be used to pull the miners to safety.

'My soul ached'
The miners and their relatives are exchanging letters via the shaft, a crucial part of maintaining their mental health.

"You have no idea how much my soul ached to have been underground and unable to tell you I was alive," trapped miner Edison Pena said in a letter to his family. "The hardest thing is not being able to see you."

Fellow miner Esteban Rojas promised his wife he would finally buy her a wedding dress as soon as he gets out, and hold a church marriage ceremony, 25 years after they wed in a registry office.

Officials have been vetting letters sent by relatives, to avoid any shocks. Some disagree with the method.

"It's very important for the miners' mental health that they communicate openly with their families, and without filters, either by letter or by phone," said Claudio Barrales, a psychologist at the Universidad Central in Santiago.

Outside, Chilean flags are everywhere — including the torn one that became a symbol of Chile's resistance when a young man was photographed holding it just after a massive earthquake rocked the South American nation last year. That flag was raised above 33 others that sit on a hill over the mine, each representing one of the trapped men.

Trapped miners' relatives, who have been living in plastic tents at the mine head in a makeshift settlement dubbed Camp Hope, have been gradually returning to their normal lives, but some were drawing up rosters to take turns being at the mine.

Push for mining reform
The accident in the small gold and copper mine has turned a spotlight on mine safety in Chile, the world's No. 1 copper producer, although accidents are rare at major mines.

The incident is not seen having a significant impact on output.

President Sebastian Pinera has fired officials of Chile's mining regulator and vowed to overhaul the agency.

Analysts say the feel-good factor of finding the miners alive, coupled with the government's hands-on approach, could help Pinera as he tries to push through changes to mining royalties that the center-left opposition had shot down.

Some family members filed suit Wednesday against the mine's owner, Compania Minera San Esteban.

Attorney Remberto Valdes, representing the miner Raul Bustos, accused the company of fraud and serious injury based on the lack of safety measures like the escape tunnel that the state-owned Codelco copper company is now preparing to dig. Four municipal governments in the area were preparing a similar claim.

On Aug. 31, the men will have been trapped underground longer than any other miners in history.

Last year, three miners survived 25 days trapped in a flooded mine in southern China. Few other rescues have taken more than two weeks.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Video: Trapped miners need to watch their waistlines

  1. Transcript of: Trapped miners need to watch their waistlines

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor (New Orleans): We have an update tonight on those miners, 33 of them in that 2,000-foot-deep copper mine in Chile . They were all discovered alive and mostly well after 17 days. Now, while it's true they may not be rescued until Christmas because boring a big enough hole is a gingerly business, and while it's now all about keeping them healthy and sane until then, we learned today they cannot get out if they are any bigger around than a 35-inch waistline. Sadly, it shouldn't be a problem as many of them have already lost a lot of pounds. Hearing this, we were reminded today, the average American waistline is almost 40 inches for men, 37 inches for American women.

Gallery: Miner profiles, first moments of freedom

Read about each of the 33 miners as they are rescued.

Photos: Chilean mine collapse

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  1. Carlos Galleguillos and Tabita Galleguillos, relatives of trapped miner Jorge Galleguillos, wait for news outside the San Jose Mine near Copiapo, Chile, on Monday, Oct. 11. The engineer leading Chilean rescue efforts, Andres Sougarett, said Monday his team successfully tested a rescue capsule nearly all the way down to where 33 miners are trapped. (Natacha Pisarenko / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Drill operators Jeff Hart, left, and James Staffel, both U.S. citizens, wave as the drill that made the hole reaching the miners is transported away from the mine on Monday. (Jorge Saenz / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Surrounded by media crews, onlookers and mine staff, the main rescue drill leaves the mine on Monday. (Ariel Marinkovic / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Rescuers test a capsule similiar to the one that will be used to recover the trapped miners at the San Jose mine near Copiapo, Chile, on Sunday, Oct. 10. (Hugo Infante / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A relative of one of the miners is hugged by a policeman after the drilling machine completed an escape hole at the mine on Oct. 9. (Ivan Alvarado / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Workers of the T-130 drill celebrate in the arid Atacama desert on Oct. 9. The crew drilling with the T-130 drill, part of an effort dubbed "Plan B" - one of three shafts attempting to reach 33 miners trapped deep underground - finally made contact with the miners' shelter. (Francesco Degasperi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A clown named Rolly shows a flag that was sent by the 33 trapped miners as a gift at the camp where relatives wait for news outside the San Jose mine in Copiapo, Chile, on Wednesday, Oct. 6. The words on the flag read in Spanish, "A souvenir for clown Rolly, from the San Jose mine, thanks for making our children laugh." Thirty-three miners have been trapped deep underground in the copper and gold mine since it collapsed on Aug. 5. (Natacha Pisarenko / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A helmet sits on a rock covered with the names of the 33 miners trapped in the collapsed San Jose mine. (Natacha Pisarenko / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Aurelia Navarro, a volunteer missionary, prays on Oct. 5 during a small ceremony marking the 60 days since miners became trapped. (Dario Lopez-mills / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A relative of one of the trapped miners writes a message on a Chilean national flag on Oct. 4. (Martin Bernetti / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A team tests a possible rescue capsule designed by the Chilean Army's Shipyards on Sept. 30. (Ariel Marinkovic / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Workers on Sept. 30 test a capsule that will be used to rescue trapped miners. (Chile's Presidency via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A worker checks part of a drill pulled from Rigg 421 on Sept. 24 at the San Jose mine near Copiapo, Chile, where 33 miners remain trapped. (Ivan Alvarado / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Children play Oct. 2 as a worker hangs a sign identifying a module to be used as school room for relatives of the trapped Chilean miners trapped. Many of the families of the miners are living in what is called "Camp Esperanza" or "Camp Hope." (Ariel Marinkovic / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Relatives of the trapped miners watch a video of them at the San Jose mine on Saturday, Sept. 18. (Aliosha Marquez A / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A crane lifts a capsule that will be used as part of rescue operation for the miners at the San Jose copper and gold mine on Saturday, Sept. 25. (Ivan Alvarado / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Nelly Bugueno, mother of trapped miner Victor Zamora, checks her cell phone as she walks past the tents where families of the 33 trapped miners are living as they await rescue on Friday. (Stringer/chile / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Jesica Cortez, wife of Victor Zamora, one of the 33 miners trapped down in the shaft, rejoices as she reads a letter from her husband, at San Jose mine, near Copiapo, 800 km north of Santiago, on Wednesday, Sept. 18. (Martin Bernetti / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Relatives of trapped miners Claudio Yanez and Dario Segovia write a message to them with painted stones outside the San Jose mine in Copiapo, Chile, Thursday, Sept. 23. (Photographer: Aliosha Marquez A / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Members of a folkloric ballet perform at the camp where relatives of trapped miners wait for news outside the San Jose mine in Copiapo, Chile, Wednesday Sept. 1. Thirty-three miners have been trapped alive deep underground in the copper and gold mine since it collapsed on Aug. 5. (Roberto Candia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A composite image captured from a video on Tuesday, Sept. 1 shows four of 33 trapped miners waving at mine San Jose, near of Copiapo, Chile. (Codelco / Handout / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. A sample of what it will be the first hot meal the miners still trapped in the San Jose Mine will have since the accident, Tuesday, Sept. 1 near Copiapo, Chile. (Ariel Marinkovic / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Evangelic Minister Javier Soto dedicates one of the 33 mini-bibles that will be given to the miners trapped in the San Jose mine, Monday. (Ariel Marinkovic / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. View of 33 Chilean national flags placed outside the San Jose mine by the relatives of the 33 trapped miners in Copiapo, 800 km north of Santiago on Monday. (Ariel Marinkovic / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A worker checks the drill machine digging an escape hole for the 33 miners trapped underground in a copper and gold mine at Copiapo, north of Santiago, Chile, on Monday, Aug. 30. (Ivan Alvarado / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Work to rescue the trapped miners continues on Aug. 30 at the mine, which is located 450 miles north of Santiago. (Ivan Alvarado / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Samuel Avalo, left, and his wife Herminda Acuna, parents of Samuel Avalo Acuna, one of the trapped miners, sit outside the San Jose mine in Copiapo, on Aug. 30. (Roberto Candia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Relatives of miners carry candles during a vigil outside the mine on Sunday, Aug. 29. (Roberto Candia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Trapped miners wave at a camera from underground on Aug. 29. (Ivan Alvarado / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Chilean pianist Roberto Bravo performs during a show for the relatives of the trapped miners in Copiapo on Aug. 29. (Ariel Marinkovic / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Relatives of those trapped underground in a copper and gold mine gather around a screen showing the miners inside the mine at Copiapo, north of Santiago, Chile, on Thursday, Aug. 26. (Ivan Alvarado / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Marion Gallardo, the granddaughter of trapped miner Mario Gomez, writes a letter to her grandfather on Wednesday, Aug. 25. The 33 miners trapped in the San Esteban gold and copper mine in Copiapo, north of Santiago, since Aug. 5 say they are "enduring hell" underground, putting urgency into the rescue operation. (Ariel Marinkovic / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. A combined photo shows the 33 miners trapped in the mine in Copiapo, Chile. (Diario Atacama / Handout / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Elias Sepulveda and her cousin Katherine embrace in front of a tribute to their relatives, Esteban Rojas and Pablo Rojas, two of the miners trapped in the collapsed mine. (Roberto Candia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. An officer stands in front of the machine that will be used to rescue the miners. The miners were trapped when the shaft they were working in collapsed. (Claudio Reyes / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Relatives of the trapped miners wave to rescue workers outside the collapsed mine. Rescue teams bored a small hole down more than 2,000 feet and used a video camera to confirm the miners were alive on Aug. 22. (Roberto Candia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  37. Florencio Avalos, one of the trapped miners, is seen Aug. 23 in an image from video. The camera was lowered more than 2,000 feet into the copper and gold mine. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  38. Lilianette Ramirez, wife of trapped miner Mario Gomez, holds a letter from her husband outside the mine on Aug. 23. (Ivan Alvarado / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  39. Relatives of trapped miners embrace after learning that the 33 miners were found alive Aug. 22. (Stringer/chile / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  40. Chilean workers operate a drilling machine at the San Esteban gold and copper mine on Aug. 17. (Ariel Marinkovic / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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