Chile's miner 'miracle'

Thirty-three miners were found alive after 17 days trapped in a collapsed mine, but it may be Christmas before they are rescued

The miners communicated with people on the surface with a letter assuring they were okay.
(Image credit: YouTube)

In Chile, rescuers have made contact with 33 survivors trapped for more than two weeks inside a collapsed mine, but warn that it could take months to free them. (Watch rescuers find a miner alive.) Here's an instant guide to the "miraculous" and harrowing saga:

Where and when did this accident occur?

On August 5, in a gold and copper mine near the town of Copiapo, Chile, about 500 miles north of the capital city of Santiago. Many of the mine workers managed to escape to the surface, but 33 were trapped inside by collapsed rock.

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How were the trapped miners found?

Chilean rescue teams were alerted to the survivors on Sunday by a note tied to an underground drill probe saying "Estamos bien en el refugio los 33" — or, roughly, "All 33 of us are fine in the shelter." For two weeks, the miners had subsisted by consuming two spoonfuls of tuna, a biscuit, and a few sips of milk every 48 hours. They reportedly located trickles of water, and even rigged up a rudimentary lighting system from a truck battery. The chamber they are in is approximately a mile long and has an ambient temperatures of 97 degrees.

Have the rescuers been in contact to the miners?

Yes, within 24 hours they were able to get telephone equipment down to the chamber. Mining minister Laurence Goulbourne spoke to the men, and they reportedly began singing the Chilean national anthem when they heard they would be rescued (Watch a video of the conversation here). In addition to food and water, rescuers are sending down items including board games, music, and a video camera to distract the men and keep their spirits up.

Why is it going to take four months to free them?

The miners are trapped nearly a half mile underground, and the hole connecting them to the surface is only about the width of a grapefruit. Rescuers are drilling a new, 27-inch hole to allow the trapped miners to escape — but they must do so carefully to avoid further cave-ins. The engineer in charge of the process says the new shaft will take "at least 120 days" to complete.

What sort of condition are the miners in?

"Better-than-expected," according to doctors on the scene, although each has lost around 20 pounds in weight. But their health is only one of their problems: Officials are concerned that the prospect of months trapped in the hot, dank mine — speaking to Chile's president by phone, one miner described the chamber as "hell" — could sap their spirits and weaken their mental strength. In order to keep their spirits up, the men have not yet been told that they will likely be trapped in the chamber until Christmas.

Do people think this is going to end well?

I wouldn't worry too much about their mental condition, says Harry Mount at the Daily Telegraph, who covered the mining disaster of Sago, West Virginia. "Miners are a different type of human being" — they'll be able to maintain their "calm, resolute and optimistic" attitudes. In many ways, says mining specialist Henry Vaumoron, quoted by the Sydney Morning Herald, it's life after their rescue that will be more difficult. "While your life is at threat you hold on — it's after you emerge from it that the psychological problems start."

What have the repercussions been like in Chile?

President Sebastian Pinera has promised the owners of the mine — which had suffered an earlier explosion in 2007 — will be subject to an investigation, and promised to overhaul the country's mining regulations. News that the survivors were alive provoked nationwide "cheers, weeping and celebrations" akin to that of a sporting victory, say reporters.

Sources: AFP, Christian Science Monitor, BBC, L.A. Times (2), Daily Telegraph, Sydney Morning Herald

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