By Jonathan Franklin
Special to the Washington Post
Sunday, September 26, 2010; 4:25 PM
SANTIAGO, CHILE - After nearly two months trapped in a collapsed copper mine, 33 miners begin training Monday for the final chapter of their underground odyssey: escape.
As three simultaneous rescue operations slowly drill through 2,250 feet of solid rock, the men are receiving detailed instructions on the latest plans to haul them out one by one next month inside a torpedo-shaped rescue capsule dubbed "The Phoenix."
The underground drama has commanded worldwide interest. A series of minor failures with drilling equipment and the challenge of carving out the nearly half-mile-long rescue tunnel have made the entire rescue operation uncertain.
If the current three rescue operations fail, a Plan D calls for the men to climb ladders for hundreds of feet, a physical task so daunting that a personal trainer has been hired to coach the miners.
Jean Christophe Romagnoli, an adviser to both the Chilean Armed Forces and professional athletes, has spent the past two weeks teaching the men light calisthenics in preparation for more strenuous phys-ed classes that begin Monday. "They have a two-kilometer stretch of tunnels; the men are walking the tunnels and some of them are jogging as a group. We are using the U.S. Army fitness training as a model, so the men sing while they jog."
Romagnoli said the singing was a safety precaution to make sure the men kept their heartbeat between 120 and 140 beats per minute. "We know that if their heart rate goes above 140, they can't sing and jog at the same time."
Despite numerous challenges to training the men via video conference from above, Romagnoli said the men were enthusiastic about the new routines. "One of the advantages we have is these guys are strong, they are accustomed to working their arms and upper body. This is not a sedentary population we are dealing with; they will respond quickly." While rescue procedures call for the men to spend just 20 minutes inside the rescue cage, Romagnoli is preparing the men to stand immobile for as long as an hour. "Ideally we leave them with an ample margin of error," he said.
Over the weekend, Chilean Navy engineers delivered the first of three rescue capsules to the mine to start testing the custom-built cage-like structure. "The Phoenix," painted with the colors of the Chilean flag, weighs just under 1,012 pounds and is equipped with WiFi communications and three oxygen tanks that allow the men to breathe for as long as 90 minutes.
The capsule also has two emergency exits for use if the tube becomes wedged in the rescue shaft. In a worst-case scenario, the miner will be able to open the floor of the capsule and lower himself back into the depths of the mine.
Once the rescue tunnel is complete, two people - "a miner and a paramedic with rescue training" - will first be lowered into the hole, said Jaime Manalich, the Chilean health minister, as he outlined what he described as a 500-person rescue operation.
Once lowered into the hole, the paramedic will administer medications and intravenous hydration to the men. Sedatives will be used if necessary to calm the men before the ride to the surface.
Using health charts and interviews, the rescue coordinators are classifying the miners into three groups: the able, the weak and the strong. The miners will be evacuated in that order, allowing the first group to serve as a test case for the more critical second group. The fittest men will be taken at the end of the operation, which is expected to last nearly two full days.
Manalich said the rescued men will be immediately taken to a field hospital - now under construction - for triage. There the men will be stabilized, then either kept on site for observation or flown by helicopter to a nearby military base or hospital.
After protests from family members, the government ceded to demands for immediate contact with the rescued men. A maximum of two members per family will be allowed to visit briefly as soon as each man is pulled to safety.
"We always had hope that they would be alive and now to see the capsule is exciting," said Carolina Lobos, 26, daughter of Franklin Lobos, a former football star now trapped underground.