Sunday 24 September 2017

Trapped miners may be forced to leave tiny refuge

Gangrene fears as space the size of a one-bedroom flat turns into mudbath

Signal of hope: A computer screen shows one of the miners trapped underground in a copper and gold mine inside the mine
at Copiapo, some 725km north of Santiago, Chile. Photo: Ivan Alvarado
Signal of hope: A computer screen shows one of the miners trapped underground in a copper and gold mine inside the mine at Copiapo, some 725km north of Santiago, Chile. Photo: Ivan Alvarado

GERARD COUZENS

THE 33 Chilean miners trapped half a mile underground face having to abandon the tiny refuge that has been their home for the past three weeks.

So far the men have only ventured around 130 feet outside of the refuge the size of a small one-bedroom flat.

But they are now searching for a new base camp in the copper mine because the place they originally used has become a mudbath.

Many of the men are suffering from skin infections, caused by the high humidity, which are difficult to treat because of the lack of fresh air and could lead to the development of gangrene.

The men plan to move to a drier area between their current home and the place where the 700,000-tonne cave-in that trapped them occurred on August 5.

Health Minister Jaime Manalich admitted yesterday that medics had detected "severe dermatological problems" among the men, who face another three months underground before they can be rescued.

Authorities in the South American country are thought to have released only part of a 45-minute video the miners made this week because the men show close-up of their skin problems on the rest of the tape.

Medicines are being sent to the miners through one of three tiny boreholes which are the men's only contact with the outside world.

Fresh air -- vital to ensure the infections do not put their lives in danger -- will be pumped down another of the boreholes later today so they can dry out their shoes.

The miners have also been advised to strip naked from time to time so their skin is not in constant contact with their wet clothes.

New supplies of underwear and clothes for humid conditions are being sent to the men.

But the authorities fear the infections, relatively easy to treat with antibiotics and disinfectant liquids in normal circumstances, could end up causing the men gangrene if they are not properly treated.

Mr Manalich has also admitted five of the miners are suffering from depression, confirming the worst fears of health experts who believe the men's mental state is key to their survival.

All five refused to take part in the video recording the Chilean government released on Friday. A psychiatrist will attempt to treat the men over an intercom system dropped to them.

Mr Manalich said: "They are very isolated, they did not want to appear on the film, they are not eating well. I would say they're symptoms of depression. Depression is an illness that is threatening, and we know that in the coming days it's going to show itself."

Nasa experts will arrive in Chile on Wednesday, following a request from help from the Chilean authorities.

Chile's health ministry contacted the US space agency earlier in the week for advice as conditions inside the cave where the miners are trapped, are similar to those found on the International Space Station. Dr Michael Duncan, Nasa's deputy chief medical officer, will travel to Chile with three other experts.

He confirmed yesterday: "Our plan is to go down and provide the advice that the Chileans have requested in the areas of nutritional support and behavioural health support.

"We have a team of four individuals including myself. That team consists of two physicians, one psychologist and one engineer. Nasa's had a long experience of dealing with isolated environments, in particular currently on the space station.

"The environments may be different but human response both in psychology and behaviour responses to emergencies is quite similar.

Yesterday it emerged Mario Sepulveda, who acted as a guide on the video the miners released, has already cheated death twice in the past four years. He escaped a car crash unharmed in 2006 after missing his bus to work and hitching a lift.

The two men that stopped to pick him up died instantly when their vehicle smashed into a lorry.

Last year he fell from a digger at the mine in San Jose, 500 miles north of the Chilean capital Santiago where he is now trapped underground, but escaped with just a sprained ankle.

Sunday Independent

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