Miners' spirits high as drill construction begins
Men not told of the long wait they face as workers predict Christmas rescue
RESCUE workers were last night working on installing a drill to dig an escape shaft for 33 miners.
They have been trapped for 19 days, deep in a Chilean mine.
Engineers started sending hydration gel and medication through a narrow borehole in an attempt to keep the miners alive during the long rescue effort. They have also set up an intercom.
It also emerged yesterday that in an effort to maintain morale, the miners have not yet been told how much longer they may be underground.
Engineers believe it could be after Christmas before they can rescue the men.
The first step is to build a concrete platform and erect the drill, which will bore a shaft 2,300ft (700 metres) straight down, and plan to use a pulley to lower a cage to evacuate them one at a time.
They hope to start drilling the escape shaft by the weekend.
The Chilean government has also contacted NASA for advice on how to keep the miners healthy with space-mission-like rations and to help them cope with the extended time in a confined space that lies ahead.
It is already one of the longest periods trapped miners have survived underground.
Regional superintendent Ximena Matas said it would take a few days to assemble the drill. Rescue workers say it will take three to four months to dig the escape shaft.
Relatives of the trapped miners, who have been living in plastic tents at the mine head in a makeshift settlement dubbed Camp Hope, are elated but face a long wait.
Maria Segovia, a 48-year-old street vendor whose brother Dario is among those trapped, said she and her siblings would take turns staying at the mine during the rescue.
"It will be difficult to leave this behind, because, though it's hard to believe, it has become our home," she said, overlooking a tiny tent where she has slept since the August 5 cave-in.
"The wait is different now, though. We are much more relaxed and I know my brother won't crack down there.
"Even though they haven't told them how long the rescue will take, they are strong -- they are miners -- and they know it won't be easy to get them out," she added.
"This is going to teach the world about survival, about the will to live."
The miners' relatives have sent letters down to the miners, tucked into emergency provisions, to help them cope with the psychological strain.
Mining Minister Laurence Golborne made the first intercom contact with the miners on Monday.
"We are well. We're waiting to be rescued," Luis Urzua, the mine shift leader, told Mr Golborne from below as the trapped miners applauded, cheered and sang Chile's national anthem.
Rescuers and family members were heartened by the remarkably good condition of the miners, whose first request was for toothbrushes.
The men have stripped off their shirts to help cope with the heat.
The accident in the small gold and copper mine has turned a spotlight on mine safety in Chile, the world's number one copper producer, although accidents are rare at major mines.
The incident is not seen as having a significant impact on Chile's output.
The miners are 7km inside the winding mine. They abandoned a sparse refuge, in an area the size of a small apartment which contains two long wooden benches, opting instead to stay in tunnels because of ventilation problems.
They tried to escape via a ventilation shaft soon after the accident, but found that a ladder was missing. The shaft later caved in.
Ventilation and tanks of water helped the miners survive. They rationed out the provisions they had, eating two mouthfuls of tuna and drinking half a glass of milk every 48 hours.
Health officials estimate that the miners may have lost about 8kg to 9kg each.
The health officials have also advised that the miners should try to exercise to stay fit and avoid any complications during the eventual rescue.
President Sebastian Pinera has fired officials of Chile's mining regulator and promised a major overhaul of the agency in light of the accident.
Analysts are now saying that the feel-good factor of finding the miners alive, coupled with the government's hands-on approach, could help Pinera as he tries to push through changes to mining royalties that the centre-left opposition had shot down.
In another mining accident in the region, a cave-in at a wildcat gold mine in south Venezuela has killed seven people and trapped others, officials said yesterday.