By Jack Howland
COPIAPO, Chile (UTC/AP) — Their self-imposed rations were meager: Two spoonfuls of tuna, a sip of milk, a bite of cracker and a morsel of peach every other day.
That iron discipline kept 33 miners trapped a half-mile underground alive for 17 days on just two days’ worth of emergency rations. And the same strength may be needed while they wait for rescuers to dig a tunnel wide enough to get them out — an operation that Chilean officials say may take until Christmas.
“The way that they have rationed the food, just as they’ve performed throughout this crisis, is an example for all of us,” Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said Tuesday after talking with the miners at length the night before through an intercom system lowered into their underground refuge.
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera vowed not to abandon the trapped miners in a telephone conversation Tuesday afternoon with Luis Urzua, the 54-year-old shift foreman who has been the miners’ leader.
“You will not be left alone, you have not been alone. The government is with you all, the entire country is with you all,” Pinera said.
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 4 miles (7 kilometers) 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 told The Associated Press as he prepared to leave Tuesday. “We did everything we could to save them, and in the end we succeeded.”
The miners said they conserved the use of their helmet lamps, their only source of light other than a handful of vehicles whose engines contaminate the air supply. They fired up a bulldozer to carve into a natural water deposit, but otherwise minimized using the vehicles.
The miners can still reach many chambers and access ramps in the lower reaches of the mine, and have used a separate area some distance from their reinforced emergency refuge as their bathroom. But they have mostly stayed in the refuge, where they knew rescuers would try to reach them.
The room has become stiflingly hot and stuffy. Leaving it allows them to breathe better air, but wandering too far is risky in the unstable mine, which has suffered several rock collapses since the initial accident. It’s also spooky, since headlamps can illuminate only small areas of the vast space.
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 for carving 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 it would take three to four months to get 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 (15-centimeter) 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 Tuesday in a rocket-shaped metal tube called a “paloma,” Spanish for dove. The paloma is 5¼ feet (1.6 meters) long and takes a full hour to descend through the bore-hole.
The supplies included:
- 33 small low-intensity and low-energy LED lights
- “more nutritive food” in the form of a vitamin-enriched gel
- eye patches
- aspirin and medicine for one miner who has diabetes and another who suffers from the respiratory disease silicosis
Family members who have maintained an anxious vigil outside the mine were encouraged to send down notes. First was Lila Ramirez, answering the “Dear Lila” letter from her husband, Mario Gomez, that thrilled the nation when the president read it aloud Sunday, 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 heart beat. 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.”
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.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.