Latin America

Chilean Miners Mark A Month Underground

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In Chile, there are continuing efforts to drill a shaft a half-mile underground to rescue 33 miners. They've now spent a month deprived of sunlight, fresh air and freedom. Estimates of how long it will take to reach them and bring them to the surface range from two to four months.


In northern Chile there are now three separate efforts to dig tunnels in hopes of saving 33 trapped miners. They could be stuck deep underground for months yet. While they wait, the government, their families and survivors of similar ordeals are trying to help the miners establish routines, stay psychologically healthy and entertain themselves.

Annie Murphy has that story from Chile.

(Soundbite of meeting)

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified People: (Speaking in foreign language)

ANNIE MURPHY: It's a bright, cloudless afternoon in the Atacama Desert. The sun beats down on a brittle hillside strewn with rocks. From the top of the hill, Chile's mining minister, Laurence Golborne, recites a list of 33 names, adding, long live, before each one.

(Soundbite of meeting)

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified People: (Speaking in foreign language)

MURPHY: One month ago, a tunnel in the San Jose mine collapsed, trapping those 33 men nearly half a mile underground just as they started their shift. Now they have a long wait ahead before they look up at the sky again, feel the sun, or experience any part of life on the surface. It could be up to four months.

(Soundbite of camp)

MURPHY: At Camp Hope, some fishermen heat oil in huge, banged up pots and fry batches of (unintelligible) for everyone in the camp. The mood here is almost festive. Relatives can now communicate with their loved ones via a video feed. And they know the miners have food and water, that they're calmer, clean shaven and have fresh clothes.

A few hours earlier, the camp hosted four Uruguayan men who survived a plane crash in the Andes and 72 days of isolation. The film "Alive" is based on their story. And Pedro Algorta is one of them. He says the worst part of an ordeal like this is waiting to be found.

Mr. PEDRO ALGORTA: They go through already the most difficult thing - when they were lost and they didn't know if they were being looking for. They didn't know if the people outside thought that they were dead. You know, I think that that was the worst part.

MURPHY: But now comes some serious work for these miners, both physical and mental. Another of the survivors of that plane crash: Gustavo Zerbino.

Mr. GUSTAVO ZERBINO: (Speaking foreign language)

MURPHY: He says in these situations, we learn that what's important in life isn't what happens to us, it's what we do with the things that happen to us. And accepting that something has happened frees up all your senses so that you can concentrate on your options. What we have to do in these situations is focus on the necessary tasks of each day.

Government officials say that's exactly the kind of mindset they're trying to help create underground. Carlos Vilches is a local congressman who's involved with the government rescue. Vilches says the men are settling into routines.

Mr. CARLOS VILCHES (Local Congressman): (Through translator) They're organized to receive the probes that go down each hour and bring them water, food, communication and other items. They eat in shifts, they sleep in shifts. They have cleaning crews. And once debris starts falling down from the work being done overhead, they're going to have to clean away up to four tons of material each day.

MURPHY: Fortunately, the miners have access to machinery that will make that task doable. And when they're not busy - they play games, says Vilches. They have cards, dice sets. They were also sent music - Chilean music and Mexican rancheras.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

MURPHY: And in addition to the requested rancheras, the families of the miners are sending down their own homemade songs to lighten the mood and help pass the time.

Unidentified People: (Singing foreign language)

MURPHY: There's a verse about each miner, joking about their lives and vices here on the surface. How one miner is addicted to the Internet and how another got trapped by a mina. The word mina is Chilean slang for a pretty girl. And mina is also regular Spanish for a mine.

For NPR News, this is Annie Murphy in Copiapo, Chile.

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