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A long, precarious wait for trapped miners in Chile

September 8, 2010 |  8:29 pm

Chile miners rescue video conference image

It's been more than a month of waiting now for "Los 33" of Chile, the miners trapped 2,300 feet underground at a gold and copper mine in the remote Atacama desert. The 33 men have had videoconferences with loved ones, watched a Chile-Ukraine soccer match on a tiny fiber-optic feed and sent "dirty jokes" up to the surface to keep their spirits up.

But as the rescue effort at the San Jose mine bears on slowly, concerns remain high for the miners' psychological state, reports Chris Kraul in The Times. Kraul notes that the miners' emergency shelter is "almost as deep as two Empire State Buildings laid end to end." By Sept. 18, Independence Day in Chile, rescuers will be drilling three competing holes 200 yards from one another in a race to reach the miners as quickly as possible.

The mine caved in Aug. 5, and the miners, all of them Chilean except for one Bolivian national, made contact with the surface Aug. 22 in a handwritten note: "We are fine, the 33 of us in the shelter." The news was met with cheers across Chile, but reality quickly set in. Efforts to dig a tunnel to reach and release the miners from their humid, dark chamber could take three to four months, or until late November or December.

Experts brought in from NASA, the U.S. space agency, said the miners were remarkably healthy and sound. They are already the longest-trapped miners in history, and the rescue operation is now considered one of the most complex and difficult ever recorded.

But in the waiting, could one of the miners "crack" and harm the others? What if the miners "rebel" against the rescue plans? What about the growing risk of skin infections?

The Guardian reports that the miners' requests for wine and cigarettes are becoming ever more insistent. They've complained about the practice of selective mail delivery (the government wants them to receive only positive messages), and they've ignored certain explicit government orders, using vehicles inside the mine even though they've been told not to do so.

"He totally cursed me out; they are not sending the letters to him," a son of trapped miner Victor Zamora told the Guardian. "He is going to blow up down there."

In the meantime, the miners aren't just waiting idly. The workers will have to move 4,000 tons of rock, in 24-hour shifts, as drilling continues to try to reach them.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Photo: Trapped miner Claudio Yanez speaks with loved ones Sept. 4. Credit: Chile federal government

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