2 days of food stretched more than 2 weeks in Chilean mine

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

COPIAPO, Chile -- Each of the 33 miners trapped a half-mile underground lived on two spoonfuls of tunas, a sip of milk and a bite of crackers. Every other day.

They were so careful in eating what was supposed to be a two-day emergency supply that when the outside world finally reached them 17 days after a mine collapse, they still had some food left.

The discipline the men have already shown will be essential during the four months it may take rescuers to dig a hole wide enough to get them out of their shelter.

The miners were plunged into darkness by the Aug. 5 collapse of the main shaft of a gold and silver mine that runs like a corkscrew for more than four miles under a barren mountain in northern Chile's Atacama desert. They gained contact with the outside world Sunday when rescuers drilled a narrow bore-hole down to their living-room-sized shelter after seven failed attempts.

"It's been like a heart that's breaking, but we're thankful they're all alive," bore-hole driller Rodrigo Carreno said as he prepared to leave Tuesday.

Rescue efforts advanced considerably Tuesday as a third bore-hole prepared to break through to the miners, and a huge machine arrived from central Chile to carve out a tunnel just wide enough for the miners to be pulled out one by one. That machine won't begin drilling for several days.

Andres Sougarret, the rescue effort's leader, estimated that it would take three to four months to pull the men out. But Davitt McAteer, a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, called that "perhaps the most conservative model."

"Twenty-five hundred feet is not a terribly, terribly big hole to drill," McAteer said. "We ought to be able to get them out in a period of weeks, not months."

Meanwhile, three 6-inch-wide shafts will serve as the miners' "umbilical cords" -- one for supplies, another for communications and a third to guarantee their air supply.

A steady flow of emergency supplies was sent down to the miners on Tuesday in a rocket-shaped metal tube called a "paloma," Spanish for dove. The paloma is 5 1/4 feet long and takes a full hour to descend through the bore-hole.

The supplies included 33 small low-intensity and low-energy LED lights, so that each miner can have a light source that won't bother his eyes in the otherwise murky depths of the mine. Also sent down Tuesday was "more nutritive food" in the form of a vitamin-enriched gel, along with eye patches, aspirin and medicine for one miner who has diabetes and another who suffers from the respiratory disease silicosis, Health Minister Jaime Manalich said Tuesday.

Family members who have maintained an anxious vigil outside the mine were encouraged to send notes down Tuesday. First was Lila Ramirez, answering the "Dear Lila" letter from her husband, Mario Gomez, that thrilled the nation when President Sebastian Pinera read it aloud, providing the first details of the miners' survival.

"I wrote him just now and told him to be very patient, that we're all camped out here, following his every heartbeat. That he shouldn't become desperate, and that he try to be extremely tranquil," Ramirez told the AP.

With each passing day, the families have been praying for their trapped husbands, fathers, brothers and boyfriends in tents surrounding the mine entrance, where cold nights end in a chilly fog. There's a bonfire to keep warm, and barbecue and other food donated by the local government in a common tent.

"We're not going to abandon this camp until we go out with the last miner left," said Maria Segovia. "There are 33 of them, and one is my brother."

Before the miners were discovered alive on Sunday, many Chileans were beginning to assume the worst. The stunning news of their survival prompted euphoria and pride across a country still recovering from one of the world's most powerful earthquakes.

Urzua, the shift foreman assured Golborne, the mining minister, that they were all doing well, and asked whether their fellow miners working above them managed to escape the Aug. 5 collapse. Golborne said all were safe, prompting cheers from the miners below. Moments later, the miners joined in a cheer and sang the national anthem in a full-throated chorus, prompting more cheers, applause and tears among the crowd above.

In one more week, 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.

Chile is the world's top copper producer and a leading gold producer, and has some of the world's most advanced mining operations.

The mine where the miners are trapped was closed in 2007 after an explosion killed three workers, but was allowed to reopen the next year -- without security improvements, miners' families and union co-workers say. The allegations prompted Pinera to fire the three leading mine safety regulators involved, and to promise no impunity should criminal liability be discovered.

Golborne said that if a ventilation shaft had been in good condition, the miners would have been able to use it to escape. Urzua told the minister that they had tried, but the route was blocked.

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