Chile turning to high-tech to aid trapped miners

By Jonathan Franklin
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, August 28, 2010

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 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 cavelike 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 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.

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