Trapped Miners To Take A Role In Their Own Rescue Thirty-three miners trapped for three weeks inside a mine in northern Chile were told Thursday it could take weeks to free them. To keep them healthy and sane in the meantime, activities are planned -- and they will soon get a chance to help drill themselves out.
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Trapped Miners To Take A Role In Their Own Rescue

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Trapped Miners To Take A Role In Their Own Rescue

Trapped Miners To Take A Role In Their Own Rescue

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

We have an update now on those miners trapped underground in Chile. Rescue workers can now see and hear the 33 men using a camera sent down a small boar hole. They're unshaven, shirtless and sweating in their hot underground bunker, which is the size of a small apartment. At one point in the video the miners break into the Chilean national anthem.

(Soundbite of video)

Unidentified Men: (Singing in Spanish)

MONTAGNE: That video was released by the Chilean government. The miners now know what people on the surface have known for days: it could take months to rescue them. They've got food and other supplies, so the challenge is not just how to get them out alive but how to keep them healthy and sane in the meantime. Annie Murphy begins her report at the mine.

ANNIE MURPHY: Workers are clocking in at the San Jose Mine. They're wearing hooded sweatshirts and steel-toed boots and their faces are stern. There's little of the banter you might find at a regular mine, because 33 of their fellow miners are trapped underground. These men are headed to a meeting with representatives of the San Esteban Primera Mining Company, which owns San Jose, to tell them that they're not going to back the business that put them all at risk.

The mine was built without an adequate emergency exit and it could take months to get the trapped men back above ground. Right now, long, thin packets of food, medicine and letters are going down to the miners via a narrow passage. These packets are nicknamed doves, though they look like giant five-foot pencils. Soon the miners will also have improved communication, including some walkie-talkies. But the men have lots of time on their hands, and it's important that they stay active to avoid getting sick or depressed.

Miguel Fort is an engineer helping with the government's rescue effort.

Mr. MIGUEL FORT (Engineer): (Through translator) They have approximately two-and-a-half kilometers of tunnels free of debris, which gives them a place to exercise in. And they're already divided into three work groups to take care of things like clean-up and organization, water and improving ventilation.

MURPHY: In fact, Hugo Olmos, a professor in the mining department at the University of Atacama, who's been participating in the design of a rescue plan, says that the miners will actually be helping dig themselves out.

Professor HUGO OLMOS (University of Atacama): (Through translator) With a drill, we'll first get down to the miners, and then they will have an important task, because we'll be sending down another drill in pieces, which is for drilling upwards to make the hole wider. They will have to put that drill together and operate it.

MURPHY: It's going to be a complex, difficult process. The machine might break, and the miners will have to learn to build and run equipment they're unfamiliar with. But they'll have tools and instructions sent down too. And Olmos believes it will help the miners psychologically to know that they're working to get themselves out.

He also believes that it could take far less than four months if the government opts to simultaneously undertake a second, more risky effort.

Mr. OLMOS: (Through translator) In 10 days it will have been a month since the accident, and the earth should have stabilized itself. We could potentially keep an eye on its geothermic activity and go into the mine again to see if we can connect with the people inside.

MURPHY: Basically Olmos is suggesting treating the mine like a sleeping animal, watching its vitals for signs of movement, while rescuers carefully venture into the old mine shaft to see if they can get through to the trapped miners.

Lilian Ramirez doesn't know about this alternative plan yet. But even so, she believes her husband, Mario, will be rescued much sooner than the government has projected.

Mr. LILIAN RAMIREZ: (Spanish spoken)

MURPHY: Chile is about to celebrate its bicentennial and Lilian thinks that her husband might get out before September 18th, which is Chilean Independence Day.

Whether it's three weeks or three months before rescue workers get to the miners, Lilian plans on staying here, living out of a tent and washing outdoors until she's reunited with her husband.

Ms. RAMIREZ: (Spanish spoken)

MURPHY: She says: I'm staying here. This is where I feel closest to my husband and the other miners.

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

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