Trapped miners found alive: now the realities of rescue begin

First supplies of food and water reach miners trapped in Northern Chile as authorities say rescue may take 3 to 4 months.

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After 17 days of frantic work and diminishing hope, euphoria raced across Chile as the 33 miners trapped in San José mine in the north of the country were discovered alive on Sunday afternoon. Now attention turns to the realities of rescue: how to get the men out, and how to keep them safe and well while they remain trapped in the mine.

8.30am Monday, the first supplies of food and medicine were sent down the 700m tunnel which emerges 20m from the miners’ refuge.

The food is in the form of high-energy glucose gel, and the emergency medical kit included antacids and tetanus vaccine, as well as questionnaires to help doctors establish the miners’ current state of health.

The supplies were sent in a plastic capsule nicknamed a ‘paloma’ – messenger pigeon – with water being channelled down in diverted well pipes.

Engineers had worked through the night to reinforce the tunnel, coating the walls with a metallic gel to decrease the risk of more rock falls in the mine.

But the miners continue to face “weeks, not days” underground, said Ronald Guzman, mining expert at the Universidad de Santiago. The head of the rescue operation, Andrés Sougarret, said they could remain trapped for up to four months.

The current plan for rescue is to expand the narrow 3 inch tunnel to a width of 61 centimeters: large enough for a man to pass through. Machinery will then be sent down the tunnel to lift the men up one by one.

The machinery will include a special diamond-tipped drill, capable of tunnelling 20 meters a day, which is being rushed to the rescue site. Guzman told Chile’s Radio Cooperativa that the miners may need to help with the assembly of machinery in the mine before they can be lifted out.

Pedro Ramirez, another member of the rescue team, said that the miners will also have to help clear rubble falling from the tunnel as digging takes place. He said: “They’re going to have to work on their own rescue because they will need to clear the material falling from the excavation.”

It will be important for the men’s well-being to keep them busy and well-supported throughout this ordeal, said Minister of Health, Jaime Manalich. “There has to be leadership established, and to support them and prepare them for what’s coming, which is no small thing,” he said.

A team of psychiatric experts have arrived at the site to help maintain the men’s psychological health, and their families, who have been camped out at the mine since the accident occurred 18 days ago, will remain as close to the site as possible.

Small microphones are being sent down to enable families to speak with their loved ones during their long wait. Andrés Sougarret said the communications equipment could begin working within hours, and that officials were organizing the families into small groups to make their talks as orderly as possible.

The regional authorities have committed to stay on site until the miners are freed, saying: “We are going to be with them in camp till the last miner [is rescued].” Chile’s Minister of Mining, Laurence Golborne, also said he would remain “until the rescue and recovery process has begun.”

This post is also available in Spanish