It has been 30 days since a caved-in tunnel left 33 miners trapped inside the San José gold and copper mine near the city of Copiapó in the Chilean Atacama Desert. Coordinated efforts using at least three different routes are underway to rescue the miners from their refuge, about 700 meter underground. However, based on the most optimistic forecast, it may take at least another 6 to 8 weeks
before the workers are brought to the surface.
Dealing with the prospects of conflict and depression caused by the long term exposure to darkness and isolation has been an important component of the rescue strategy. A four-member team of NASA experts
visited the site of the accident and provided advice based on NASA's long experience in training and planning for emergencies in spaceflights and the protection of humans in hostile environments.
Until last week the miners and relatives in the surface had been able to exchange written messages sent through a bore hole connecting with the worker’s refuge. On Saturday, rescue communications technicians managed to establish voice and video contact with the miners so each of the 33 could speak with three relatives for about a minute. One of the miners, Víctor Zamora, complained to his family that he had received only one letter in a week. He was afraid that his relatives were hiding something. "We have sent at least 15 letters," said his wife, Jessica Cortés. "I write daily, also his mother and brothers had sent letters."
Letters are screened
According to Cortés, there is a team of “young ladies described as psychologists who read our letters and put them in a bag, and we do not know what do they do with them.” Apparently, they read and hold some of them because they want to avoid the miners who have several women
being troubled by the conflicts of their women.
Cortes believes that about 22 of the 33 families are facing the this letter challenge. At times the family camp in the San José mine resembles a literary workshop. There is always someone either reading or writing a letter. Alberto Iturra, the coordinator of a team of psychologists, acknowledged on Sunday that there had been "organizational problems" in the transmission of letters:
"At first, things worked well because we only had 33 letters, then we had 80, but when it reached hundreds, it began to take space that we can use to send down food and water. We must keep in mind that this is a rescue operation, not a
Alcohol and tobacco are not allowed
With the bicentennial celebration of Chilean Independence day coming in a couple of weeks, the miners had requested, and the psychologists had considered, the possibility of sending the miners wine and empanadas
(a pastry filled with beef, onions, raisins, black olives, hard boiled eggs and hot peppers). This traditional celebratory menu, along with cigarettes, has been turned down
. Head psychologist Iturra, with the support of heath officials, rejected the idea by saying:
"This is an emergency; we're not celebrating. The Chilean mining industry has 600 years of tradition and drinking inside the mine is not allowed.”
Instead of wine and the festive empanadas
, the miners, will “celebrate” with high protein, high-calorie food delivered in narrow plastic tubes through a thin shaft. As far as cigarettes, since they have been deemed harmful in such an enclosed environment, they have been replaced by patches and nicotine gum to help them cope with withdrawal symptoms.