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Trapped Chilean miners told rescue could take months

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.
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.Roberto Candia / AP
/ Source: staff and news service reports

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.

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.