Facing Long Mine Rescue, Chile Spares No Expense

SAN JOSÉ MINE, Chile — The government has consulted NASA about the extreme isolation of space. Chilean Navy officers have come to discuss the emotional stress of living in a submarine. Doctors stand at the ready with antidepressants. Even a tiny home theater is being funneled down in plastic tubes to occupy the 33 miners stuck in their subterranean home.

SAN JOSÉ MINE, Chile — The government has consulted NASA  about the extreme isolation of space. Chilean Navy officers have come to discuss the emotional stress of living in a submarine. Doctors stand at the ready with antidepressants. Even a tiny home theater is being funneled down in plastic tubes to occupy the 33 miners stuck in their subterranean home.

Chile is sparing no expense or attempted innovation in trying to rescue the miners trapped by a cave-in on Aug. 5, fully aware that the country — and the world — is closely watching the ordeal.

But like everything else being done to maintain the psychological health of the miners over the weeks or months they may remain nearly half a mile underground, officials will carefully control what they are exposed to, down to the messages they receive from their families or the kind of movies that might be projected on the wall of the mine.

“Movies are possible,” said Ximena Matas, a local city councilwoman. “But the psychologists will decide what movies they will see. It’s up to them if something like ‘Avatar’ would be too upsetting.”

No fewer than seven government ministers roam the dusty brown dirt of the makeshift camp outside the mine here in Chile’s Atacama Desert, not to mention the countless politicians, millionaire donors and observers who almost outnumber the family members camping in tents.

With his popularity already slipping, President Sebastián Piñera has staked his nascent presidency on rescuing the miners, and is keeping up a full-court media press that reflects both his background as the billionaire former head of a media empire and the strategy that helped get him elected, analysts said.

“With a conviction that seemed to border on political suicide, the authorities bet all or nothing, and this time the returns will have incalculable reach,” Max Colodro Riesenberg, a professor at the University Adolfo Ibáñez, wrote in a newspaper column this week.

Government officials said they held a teleconference on Wednesday afternoon with five NASA specialists, among them doctors who put astronauts through tests that simulate the grueling isolation of a voyage to Mars.

Dr. Jaime Mañalich, the health minister, said he had urged NASA to send a team to “monitor what we are doing here” and announced Thursday that three or four NASA specialists would arrive in Chile next week to assist medical officials with the miners.

“This is a unique experience,” Dr. Mañalich said.

The miners are in relatively good spirits, officials say, but psychologists are concerned that both the miners and their families may soon suffer from post-traumatic stress once the euphoria wears off from establishing contact on Sunday. Psychologists are coaching family members and the miners on what they should say to each other and are filtering notes before they are sent down to the miners.

“They are giving good advice,” said Margarita Lagos Fuentes, 54, the mother of Claudio Lagos, a 34-year-old miner trapped below. “If they are in hell, why should we make it worse?”

Health workers are organizing a special exercise and recreation program to keep the men fit during their long wait. And they are instructing the miners about the need to distinguish between daytime and nighttime activities. Beyond the immediate 600-square-foot chamber the miners have sought refuge in, there are ample tunnels in which to move around and find a little privacy, mining company officials said.

For days after discovering the miners alive, officials carefully avoided telling them that it could take months to get them out, for the sake of preserving morale. Then on Wednesday, the health minister announced that officials had informed the miners that they would not be rescued before Chile’s Independence Day on Sept. 18 and that “we hoped to get them out before Christmas.”

The miners reacted calmly to the news, Dr. Mañalich, the minister, said. “But we have the impression that in the days to come they are going to suffer from huge challenges regarding their psychological conditions.”

The miners finally got their first solid food on Wednesday afternoon — cereal bars — after four days of liquids. Because of the small size of the borehole, which is only about four inches in diameter, health workers have been struggling to send enough food and liquid, and hoped to be able to provide each miner with 800 calories on Thursday.

Before being discovered, the miners survived on tiny bites of emergency rations and have lost an average of about 20 pounds each. Just outside the borehole, a reporter asked Marcela Zúñiga, a nurse, when the miners would receive their first empanadas, a popular Chilean pastry usually stuffed with meat. “Those are being prepared by a special team in Santiago,” Ms. Zúñiga said.

Short notes from the miners have brought tears and laughter to family members above — like the one Orlando Contreras, 19, the brother of Pedro Contreras, 25, keeps in his wallet — quickly becoming cherished property. The miners have asked family members to send toothbrushes, clean underwear and, usually in jest, comforts like beer, bottles of wine and CDs. Omar Reygadas sent a note to his family asking for a steak and television “to kill the boredom.”

The miners have also been sending their credit and bank cards to family members via the tubes, which are pulled up by a winch. Government officials said they were starting to send them soccer updates and other news.

Psychologists are helping families choose who will make their first verbal communication with the miners on a modified telephone through the borehole, officials and family members said.

Only one family member will be allowed to speak to each miner, for up to five minutes each. A videocamera may also be connected by cable to officials above, allowing family members to see the miners themselves.

The mine has had a history of accidents and was forced to shut down briefly to make safety improvements, but its owners did not carry them out, according to some lawmakers and a risk prevention specialist who worked for the company.

The miners became trapped when two levels above them collapsed, leading them to seek refuge in a shelter about 2,300 feet deep. As the days passed, the nation grew increasingly skeptical that any of the miners had survived — let alone all of them.

Now officials face a new set of questions, including whether to send the miners, many of whom smoke, cigarettes. Ultimately, it was decided that they would be sent nicotine gum instead.

That was just fine with Mrs. Fuentes, the mother of Mr. Lagos. “I’m hoping they come out of there with a more mature attitude,” she said. “Forget about beer and cigarettes.”

Source: nytimes.com