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Miners making themselves at home

Joaquin Lavin (center), Chile’s education minister, gave a bag of school supplies to a child relative of one of the trapped coal miners during a visit to the San Jose mine yesterday. Joaquin Lavin (center), Chile’s education minister, gave a bag of school supplies to a child relative of one of the trapped coal miners during a visit to the San Jose mine yesterday. (Ariel Marinkovic/ AFP/ Getty Images)
By Vivian Sequera
Associated Press / September 28, 2010

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SAN JOSE MINE, Chile — They get laundry service, TV, three hot meals a day, and even ice cream for dessert. Everyday life for the 33 miners trapped a half-mile underground now includes some of the comforts of home — at least those that can be lowered through narrow holes.

The miners are sleeping on cots that were sent down in pieces and reassembled, and each can look forward every weekend to eight minutes each of video chat time with his family using compact cameras and a phone that was disassembled to fit through the hole.

Settling in for the long wait, they have established a disciplined routine designed not only to keep them mentally and physically fit, but also to ensure that they work together.

The plan, according to the rescue effort’s lead psychiatrist, Alberto Iturra Benavides, is to leave them with no possible alternative but to survive until drillers finish rescue holes, which the government estimates will be done by early November.

“Surviving means discipline, and keeping to a routine,’’ Iturra said.

So when the miners do get moments to relax, they can watch television — 13 hours a day, mostly news programs and action movies or comedies, whatever is available that the support team decides will not be depressing. They have seen “Troy’’ and “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’’ with Brad Pitt and Jim Carrey’s “The Mask.’’ But no intense dramas. “That would be mental cruelty,’’ Iturra said.

The news the miners see — which in Chile includes frequent reports about the miners themselves — also is reviewed first by the team above, said Luis Felipe Mujica, the general manager of Micomo, the telecommunications subsidiary of Chile’s state-owned Codelco mining company.

“Of course, to do that you need to watch the news first and effectively limit access to certain types of information, or to put it vulgarly, censor it,’’ Mujica said. “This is a rescue operation, not a reality show.’’

Though some miners have requested them, sending down personal music players with headphones and handheld video games has been ruled out, because those items tend to isolate people from one another.

“What they need is to be together,’’ Iturra said.

Togetherness is what initially saved the miners when an estimated 700,000 tons of rock collapsed Aug. 5 and sealed off the central section of the mine shaft above them, plunging them into darkness and kicking up thick clouds of dust that made it impossible to see, even with their headlamps.

The collapse happened just as the men were gathered for lunch in the refuge — a space about 12 feet by 12 feet with a fortified ceiling nearly 15 feet high that normally doubles as a dining room in the lower reaches of the mine. Had the collapse occurred any sooner or later, some of the miners probably would have been crushed.

When the dust finally settled about five days later, the miners could see they were trapped in a large open space, about 1,200 feet long, that runs up the corkscrew-shaped shaft to another workshop about 2,000 feet underground. The space had several mining vehicles with battery and engine power, a chemical toilet, and industrial water, which together with their meager emergency food supply enabled them to survive with no help from the outside world.

“They were 17 days in the darkness, 17 days during which in the first five days they could barely breathe from the dust,’’ Iturra said. “And then they had to say, ‘I didn’t die.’ This in itself stops you from being frightened.’’

Since Aug. 22, when a bore hole reached the miners, their rescue and support team has grown to more than 300. It includes communications experts, doctors, psychologists, launderers, and cooks in addition to the drilling engineers, in what has become a small village in the middle of an Atacama Desert. The crews work in teams and shifts to provide everything necessary for the miners’ survival.

Iturra said the miners have taken it upon themselves to solve their problems. Divided into three groups of 11, they sleep on cots in three separate parts of the mine, work in three shifts, and share lunch at noon to maintain unity.

Their routine starts with breakfast — hot coffee or tea with milk and a ham-and-cheese sandwich. Then lots of labor: Removing the loose rock that drops through the bore holes as they are being widened into escape tunnels; cleaning up their trash and emptying the toilet; and attending to the capsules known as “palomas’’ — Spanish for carrier pigeons — that are lowered to them with supplies.

The miners must quickly remove the contents — food, clean clothes, medicine, family letters, and other supplies — and send back up material such as dirty clothes, rolled up like sausages to fit. Each trip down takes 12 to 15 minutes, then four minutes for unloading and five minutes to pull them back up.

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