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NASA says no booze, cigarettes for Chile miners

Already deprived of sunlight, fresh air and their loved ones for 26 days, NASA doctors say 33 miners trapped deep in a Chilean mine must continue to forego other pleasures.
Image: Relative of trapped mine
Marta Salinas, wife of trapped miner Yonni Barrios, waits at the San Jose mine in the Atacama desert in Copiapo, Chile, Tuesday. Chilean President Sebastian Pinera said that rescue work for the 33 trapped miners are on the right track.Ian Salas / EPA
/ Source: news services

Already deprived of sunlight, fresh air and their loved ones for 26 days, NASA doctors say 33 miners trapped deep in a Chilean mine should continue to forego two other pleasures: alcohol and cigarettes.

Facing a wait of around two to four months as rescuers race to drill a narrow shaft 2,300 feet vertically down to extract them, the miners are in good spirits, and included wine on a wish-list of items to be sent down a tiny borehole from the surface.

Health officials have sent them high-protein, high-calorie foods in narrow plastic tubes to help them build up their strength after losing an estimated 22 pounds each during 17 days entombed after a cave-in before they were found alive.

Booze will have to wait.

"From the alcohol standpoint, we need to first get their nutrition up before we make any considerations there," said James Michael Duncan, NASA's deputy chief doctor, who flew with a team of medical experts to Chile to help advise the government on one of the world's most challenging rescue bids.

Some of the men have also asked for cigarettes, and health officials have sent them nicotine patches and gum.

"It's an environment that's pretty enclosed and we don't want to contribute to any of the problems within the atmosphere of the mine," Duncan added.

Duncan and his team of "life sciences experts" flew to Chile to help advise the government on nutrition and behavioral health as the miners wait on one of the world's most challenging rescue bids.

'Miners showed us tremendous strength'
Duncan, speaking at a news conference in Santiago, said his team viewed two videos the miners made of themselves and their surroundings — and they clearly raised some concern about weight loss.

He said a priority was increasing the miners' caloric intake, getting them on a regular sleep schedule and ensuring they remain optimistic.

Used to managing prolonged periods in confined areas on space missions, NASA is also advising the government on how to keep the men mentally fit for the weeks ahead.

"These miners showed us tremendous strength in surviving as long as they did without any contact with the surface," Duncan said. "What we want to try to avoid is any kind of situation of hopelessness on the part of the miners."

That could mean increasing their contact with the outside world — including bringing in celebrities or even astronauts who have survived long periods of isolation in space, Duncan said.

The men have designated areas for sleep and card games while freeing space to keep items like toothpaste and deodorant. The men have also asked for laxatives to help regulate their digestive systems after initially surviving on two mouthfuls of canned tuna and half a glass of milk every 48 hours until supplies ran out.

Rescuers have sent them miniature projectors so they can watch video clips of soccer greats Pele and Maradona, and have also sent cards, dominoes and letters from their family members.

Health Minister Jaime Manalich says the men are holding up remarkably well in the hot, humid tunnel. But they face a long haul.

'Absolutely unheard of' rescue
The effort to save the miners is an unprecedented challenge, mining safety experts said Tuesday. It means months of drilling, then a harrowing three-hour trip in a cage up a narrow hole carved through solid rock.

First, engineers must use a 31-ton drill to create a "pilot" hole from the floor of the Atacama Desert down 2,200 feet to the area in the San Jose mine where the men wait.

Rescuers began drilling the escape shaft on Monday night, and by early Tuesday evening, had bored down 26 feet — around 1 percent of the target depth.

Then, the drill must be fitted with a larger bit to carve out a rescue chimney that will be about 26 inches wide — a task that means guiding the drill through solid rock while keeping the drill rod from snapping or getting bogged down as it nears its target.

Finally, the men must be brought up one at a time inside a specially built cage — a trip that will take three hours each. Just hauling the men up will itself take more than four days — if there are no problems.

"Nothing of this magnitude has happened before; it's absolutely unheard of," said Alex Gryska, a mine rescue manager with the Canadian government.

Chilean officials said the miners will have to remove upward of 3,000 tons of rock as it falls into the area where they are trapped. There is little danger to the men — the area includes a shelter and about 500 yards of a shaft outside that. But as the rock starts to fall a month from now, the men will work in nonstop shifts to remove it with wheelbarrows and industrial sweepers.

'Like they're being born again'
If the miners remain healthy during their long period underground and if the drilling goes as planned, they will then face the ordeal of being stuffed into a tubular, metal cage for three hours as they are slowly pulled up.

Experts say one of the few times such a technique was used was when nine U.S. miners were hauled out of the flooded Quecreek Mine near Somerset, Pennsylvania, in 2002. But those men were trapped for just three days 240 feet underground.

Quecreek survivor Mark Popernack noted the Chilean miners "already went through more than what we went through," but the Somerset, Pennsylvania, resident said no matter the method, "to come up is the best thing in the world."

"If they make it, if they get that hole drilled, when they come out of there, they'll feel like they're being born again," said Popernack.