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Engineers buttress lifeline to trapped Chile miners

By Mauricio Cuevas
Associated Press / August 24, 2010

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COPIAPO, Chile — Engineers reinforced a lifeline yesterday to 33 miners entombed deep inside a Chilean gold and copper mine, preparing to keep them supplied with food, water, medicine, and communications during the four months it may take to carve a tunnel wide enough to pull them out.

A team of doctors also arrived yesterday at the remote mine, implementing a plan to maintain the miners’ mental health as well.

“We need to urgently establish what psychological situation they are in. They need to understand what we know up here at the surface, that it will take many weeks for them to reach the light,’’ Health Minister Jaime Manalich said.

Engineers worked through the night to reinforce the 6-inch-wide bore-hole that broke through to the miners’ refuge Sunday, more than 2,257 feet below the surface.

Using a long hose, they coated the walls with a metallic gel to decrease the risk of more rock falls in the unstable mine and make it easier to pass material in capsules nicknamed “palomas,’’ or doves.

The first capsules — which take about an hour to descend from the surface — will include water and food in the form of a high-energy glucose gel to miners who have almost certainly lost significant weight since they were trapped with limited food supplies on Aug. 5.

Also being sent down are questionnaires to determine each miners’ condition, along with medicines and small microphones to enable them to speak with their families during their long wait.

Rescue leader Andre Sougarret said that the communications equipment could begin working within hours, and that officials were organizing the families into small groups to make their talks as orderly as possible.

An enormous machine with diamond-tipped drills that is capable of carving a person-size tunnel through solid rock at a velocity of 65 feet a day was on its way yesterday to the San Jose gold and copper mine outside Copiapo in north-central Chile.

Engineers also were boring two more narrow shafts to the trapped men to ensure that their lifelines would remain intact while the larger tunnel is being carved.

The men became trapped after a tunnel collapsed at the San Jose mine, in the Atacama region of Chile, about 530 miles north of the capital, Santiago.

It will be important for the men’s well-being to keep them busy and well-supported throughout this ordeal, Manalich said.

Euphoria that their men survived the collapse and anxiety for what’s coming next meant for a sleepless night for the miners’ families, who shivered through a cold, foggy night in the Atacama desert.

“We didn’t sleep. We stayed up all night long hoping for more news. They said that new images would appear, so we were up hoping to see them,’’ said one, Carolina Godoy.

When the drill broke through rock to reach the emergency refuge where the miners have gathered, the trapped men tied two notes to the end of a probe that rescuers pulled to the surface, announcing in big, red letters: “All 33 of us are fine in the shelter.’’

The scene above ground became a celebration Sunday night, with a barbecue for the miners’ families, roving musicians, lit candles, and Chilean flags making the barren landscape seem festive.

A video camera lowered down the probe shaft Sunday showed some of the miners, stripped to the waist in the underground heat, waving.

But they weren’t able to establish audio contact, President Sebastian Pinera said.

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