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Trapped Chilean miners, families frustrated over mail delivery

By Jonathan Franklin
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 5, 2010; 8:41 PM

COPIAPO, CHILE - Tensions heightened over the weekend as family members of the 33 men trapped in a Chilean mine shaft for the past month protested that the government is censoring and losing their letters to the miners and restricting information to the men.

"He totally cursed me out. They are not sending the letters to him," the son of trapped miner Victor Zamora said by cellphone. "He is going to blow up down there."

Other angry relatives confronted government officials Saturday night at a raucous meeting in a tent just outside the mouth of the San Jose mine.

Luis Urzua, the leader of the miners, told rescue officials Saturday that failure to deliver letters was a major issue of discontent among the trapped men. With three separate drilling operations still months away from rescuing the men from the collapsed mine shaft more than 2,400 feet below, communication is key to their mental health.

A videoconference system was set up Saturday, though families were given only one minute each to speak with their loved ones. Handwritten letters are the principal means of communication between the miners and their families.

Chilean government officials at the rescue site have repeatedly explained to family members that only letters with positive messages will be delivered to the miners. They say the men are under such extreme stress that any negative communication could be harmful.

With basic needs now met - including food, medicine, beds, razors, fresh clothes and shampoo - the miners are rebelling at the strict schedule set from above, rescuers say.

The miners "say they are cured and not sick," said one rescue leader who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. "They want to go back to their regular life."

In recent days, the miners refused to accept a set of customized board games when spelling errors were noted on the leather dice cups. A delivery of peaches was returned. And despite repeated requests to not use vehicles, the men continue to drive mining vehicles in their underground labyrinth.

The men have also pressed for wine, cigarettes and empanadas.

"As the men get better, they get more demanding," said an engineer working with the government-run rescue operation.

Such anger and stress is common in groups under isolation, said Nick Kanas, professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Francisco and a longtime consultant to NASA. "They have nowhere to go for support. After six weeks, the situation turns sterile and confining. What was once quirky and fun - like the jokes of a colleague - become irritable and tiresome."

Kanas also warned that efforts to censor letters might backfire.

"They will know they are not getting the full story, and they will want to know why," he said.

Officials say prompt mail service is less of a priority than medicine and food as the men continue to recover from the early effects of the ordeal. Each man is estimated to have lost 20 pounds during the first 17 days after the collapse.

Delivering mail is itself a precarious operation, based on a Chilean invention called "la paloma" - named for the messenger pigeons of the past. High on the mountainside, workers place each letter in a plastic container that is then inserted into a "pigeon," a slim, torpedo-like tube that is lowered into the shaft by rope. The miners have organized themselves into groups of "pigeon catchers" who work eight-hour shifts to deliver the mail. The men have 90 seconds to unload one payload and insert the next - a frenzied, choreographed procedure not unlike the changing of tires at a NASCAR pit stop.

Despite the weekend protests, Alberto Iturra, lead psychologist for the rescue operation, said some of the miners' relatives privately expressed support for the censorship and for the overall effort to maintain group unity.

On Saturday, more than 100 relatives were shuttled to the hillside near the mouth of the mine for video chats with the miners. The scene was jubilant as family members cheered at the chance to see and hear their loved ones.

"You saw Daddy, you saw Daddy," said Veronica Quispe, 20, wife of Bolivian Carlos Mamani, the only non-Chilean among the trapped men. With her 1-year-old daughter, Yemily, breast-feeding, Quispe danced around the rocky mountainside. "When he gets back I am going to rob him away," she said with a seductive smirk. "He's mine."

Carolina Lobos, 26, daughter of the football-star-turned-miner Franklin Lobos, hugged her sister, Claudia Lobos, 20, after seeing their father on video. "We told him that when he gets out, we are going to have a huge party, a blowout!" she said.

Claudia Lobos, still hugging her sister, said, "I tried to be strong, but I cried at once. But he looks great. I forgot to tell him to go on camera more [during group videos taken by the miners], and we were so excited we didn't let him talk."

The siblings had nothing but congratulations for the government operation so far.

Hugging and smiling with Iturra, Carolina Lobos thanked the technicians for the video hookup. "It was like he was in the living room, right here."

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