Connect to share and comment

Chile: Voices from the underground

When you're trapped a half mile beneath the Earth's surface, what is it you want most?

Relatives of Chilean miners cheer
Relatives of the miners trapped in the San Esteban gold and copper mine in Copiapo, north of Santiago, celebrate with Chilean senator Isabel Allende (center in a white shirt and dark jacket) on Aug. 23, 2010, a day after learning that the 33 workers were alive and well. (Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty Images)

SANTIAGO, Chile — In his first conversation with the trapped miners through a remote phone device on Monday, Chile Mining Minister Laurence Golborne learned what the miners wanted most: Food, toothbrushes and beer.

They also wanted to sing the national anthem. The chorus of 33 men, one of whom is Bolivian, broke into song from half a mile underground when the first audio contact was established since the cave-in on Aug. 5.

After weeks of parallel drillings into hard rock and several frustrated attempts, rescue workers had their first success on Sunday. Against all odds, every one of the miners survived the accident in the San Jose copper and gold mine in the Atacama desert, 500 miles north of the capital, Santiago.

The miners sent up to the surface a few small notes written on scraps of paper and wrapped in a plastic bag tied with straps of rubber to one of the drills that had descended to the location where they were presumed to be.

A larger piece of paper with big red letters read: “We are fine in the refuge, the 33.” A camera attached to the drill was able to transmit the face of a young miner, apparently in good health.

In that first conversation Monday, the miners also cheered at the news that their coworkers, who were on the way out of the mine during the cave-in, had made it safely out.

The mood was celebratory, but the ordeal isn't over yet. It could take until Christmas to drill a new tunnel for their escape.

Getting supplies to the miners is a difficult operation. The government has already begun sending them sugar water, medicine and nutrients, as well as letters from their loved ones. Each “dove” piped down with supplies and messages takes an hour to reach the miners and another hour back.

Health officials sent a questionnaire for each of the miners to get a more precise picture of their physical conditions, access to food and water, medication, possible injuries and other vital data. The miners piped the questionnaire back through the 2,300 foot-long, narrow shaft: No one was injured. They had access to stored water as well as a drip in the mine. Their eyes hurt from the dust and ventilation was a problem. Some had mild stomach pains, and they were hot. Mostly, though, they were hungry.

Health Minister Jaime Manalich said the miners had been rationing the tuna fish, water and milk stored in the refuge and were well organized in their daily routine. “Their physical and mental health, in spite of everything, is extraordinarily good,” he said.

The rescue will not be easy or fast, and is expected to last between two and four months. Mining engineer Andre Sougarret, head of the government-appointed emergency team supervising the rescue efforts, said the plan now is to drill three shafts — one for communications, another to send food, oxygen and other supplies, and a third for ventilation.

The actual rescue will not be through any of these shafts. A new 26-inch diameter vertical tunnel will have to be drilled in order to lift the miners up one by one. Thirty tons of new equipment from Codelco to be used for the rescue are on their way to the mine, and the government announced it would request technology from NASA to help the miners endure the long confinement ahead.

Mining engineer Agustin Holgado, of the international engineering consultant company Arcadis, believes much of the rescue effort will have to be done by the miners themselves.

“The vertical drilling will be from above and from below, and it’s going to be hard work for the miners. First, they will have to be physically fit and learn from experts how to assemble and then operate the machinery the rescue teams will lower to them in pieces. Then, they will start breaking ground from the bottom up, clean out the material that will fall, and guide the machinery working above ground while widening the tunnel,” he explained.