NASA helping in historic rescue of trapped Chilean miners

By Jonathan Franklin
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 27, 2010; 8:52 PM

COPIAPO, CHILE - As 33 Chilean miners entered their fourth week trapped in a collapsed mine, experts from around the world gathered on this remote hillside to attempt what all consider a historic rescue operation.

With video footage showing the men in relatively good health, much of the focus has shifted to logistics and mental health while an Australian-built drilling rig slowly rips open an escape tunnel, an effort now expected to take 90 days.

"They are a tremendously cohesive group. . . . there is a positive and powerful leader, which makes the group more organized," said Rodrigo Figueroa, head of the Stress and Disaster Unit at Catholic University in Santiago. "As miners, they are disciplined and prepared for this kind of emergency, and preparation is fundamental."

The logistics of first designing and then sending a world of supplies down more than 2,200 feet through a hole not much bigger than a lemon has challenged the Chilean engineers and their counterparts from around the world, including NASA scientists and submarine commanders.

"That's the size of the tube by which we can supply them," said Chilean Health Minister Jaime Manalich as he formed a small circle with his hands. "Everything we develop must be this size or smaller."

Manalich described a laboratory of inventors behind the scenes who are designing everything, including collapsible cots and miniature sandwiches for lunch.

A tiny video camera lowered to the depths of the mine produced a dramatic video that showed the stark contrast between the men's cavernous living quarters - a mile-long stretch of mine tunnels, filled with vehicles and cave-like crevices - and the nearly impossible task of providing them with anything more than the most basic supplies.

"I would compare this to NASA when they did experiments with extreme isolated conditions in which they don't supply medicine or food to this crew to find out what happens in the future. . . . That is why we asked NASA to come down. NASA seems very confident that what is happening here is very similar to their experiments," Manalich said.

Figueroa, who was asked by the government to advise rescue operations, said he had never experienced a similar situation. "You can make analogies. You see this kind of stress in space missions, in sunken submarines, people who are trapped in Antarctica and people who are stuck behind enemy lines," he said.

The miners' immediate survival is in little doubt as they began receiving solid food this week and are continually delivered water. They are also receiving handwritten messages from their families via a tube that carries pods known as "palomas," or doves.

A second tube for enriched oxygen and a third for video conferences are complete, meaning families will soon be able to hold daily video chats with their trapped loved ones. Dominoes and board games were sent down in to stave off monotony, and an evangelical priest arrived with tiny Bibles he said were specially designed to fit inside the doves.

Custom-built fluorescent tubes will be set on timers to create a sense of day and night, an attempt to keep the men on a somewhat normal schedule.

"We must keep close track of their health," said Manalich, adding that his team is preparing for any of a host of medical emergencies. "How do you treat appendicitis without surgery? Our staff is scouring the old medical texts to find ways these kind of conditions can be treated without intervention, only using painkillers and other remedies."

To limit such emergencies, the Chilean government has named Johny Berrios, a miner with a hobbyist's passion for reading medical literature, as the designated camp doctor.

Berrios has been assigned to take urine and blood samples, which will be carefully placed in the tiny tubes and sent up to ground level, where a makeshift lab has been built to analyze and monitor the health of each miner. Miners with skin ailments or lesions will be asked to parade their ills before the video camera, allowing a remote team of doctors to diagnose the problem and design a solution that fits inside the dove.

Manalich said five of the miners were suffering from depression. "They are more isolated. . . . They are not eating well."

The miners' living conditions present so many logistical and mental health issues that the support staff includes 300 of engineers, psychologists, nutritionists, lab technicians and a detachment of Chilean police. In total, there are about 10 professionals fully at work for each trapped miner.

After a week of consultation with NASA, a team of astronaut specialists will be brought in to monitor the miners.

Despite the huge challenges of what is increasingly seen as an unprecedented rescue, Manalich said the cost of the operation would not be a factor.

"This is not about money," he said. "This is about getting them out."

Franklin is a special correspondent.

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