Long rescue begins for Chile miners

August 24, 2010 12:00 am

, COPIAPO, Aug 24 – Thirty-three Chilean miners found alive and in good spirits after more than two weeks trapped underground began receiving glucose and medications on Monday but were not told it could take up to four months to free them.

The engineer in charge of the rescue mission at the San Jose gold and copper mine, Andres Sougarret, said he was plotting where to drill a hole large enough to lift the miners out one by one from a gallery nearly 700 meters (2,300 feet) below ground.

"The umbilical cord is ready," he said. "Now comes the engineering design, the topography, and then begins the work of drilling."

A Strata 950, a South African-made industrial hydraulic bore, arrived at the mine Monday from Chile\’s state mining company Codelco to execute the laborious plans to drill a shaft wide enough to extract the miners.

"What we are going to do is to make a vertical excavation. The machine will bore a shaft 13 inches (33 centimetres) in diameter, and then a grinding plate will expand it to 66 centimetres," the engineer said.

But Sougarret said he had not told the miners how long the operation would take, withholding from them his own estimate that it could be three to four months – until Christmas – before they can be reached.

Meanwhile, miners were in contact with rescuers through an intercom line lowered through a three-inch (eight-centimetre) diameter bore hole, and reported they were in good health and had water but were hungry after 18 days in the hot, dank mine.

"They asked for food, and toothbrushes and something for their eyes," said Mining Minister Laurence Golborne.

When they heard that their colleagues were alive and had escaped unharmed after the August 5 cave-in, the trapped miners could be heard cheering and shouting "Viva Chile" and then singing the national anthem in an audio recording aired on Chilean television.

In one of their messages, the miners said they had survived on rations of two tablespoons of tuna fish and half a cup of milk every 48 hours. The food had been stored in an emergency shelter.

Paula Newman, a doctor in charge of monitoring the miners\’ health, said rescuers had already sent down a glucose solution and medication to prevent ulcers. She said they should wait another day before taking solid foods.

"They are all in perfect health, and none are traumatized," said Newman. "Their complaints are much less than we could have expected."

How they will hold up for weeks more was a big question mark, however.

Newman said the miners were being asked to answer questions about their medical histories, when they last ate and bathed and who their leaders were to get a more precise picture of the group.

They were believed to have used a bulldozer to make a channel of water and had rigged up a makeshift lighting system from a truck engine to illuminate their subterranean surroundings.

Miners who escaped the cave-in on August 5 said they believed their colleagues were not in some small cavern but in a spacious area 1.5 to 1.8 kilometres long.

"There is space enough for them down there… More than 50 people could fit in there easily" with their mining machinery, said Gine Erazo, a miner.

A wave of euphoria has swept Chile since Sunday when a jubilant President Sebastian Pinera, waving a note from the miners, announced that all 33 were alive.

A camera lowered down the bore hole on Sunday showed the miners sweaty and shirtless in the hot (32-36 degrees Celsius, 90-97 Fahrenheit) shelter, but in apparently good condition and high spirits.

"Many of them approached the camera and put their faces right up against it, like children, and we could see happiness and hope in their eyes," Pinera said, adding that the images "gave me a lot of happiness and faith that this is going to end well."

Friends and relatives wept with joy outside the mine at learning their loved ones were safe. During the past two weeks, they had prayed and left messages and symbolic piles of stones around the entrance to the mine.

The mine\’s owners, however, said the disaster had put the mining company at risk of bankruptcy, and told a Chilean radio station they might not be able to pay the miners once they have been rescued.

But Leonardo Farkas, an eccentric mining magnate, on Monday sent a check for 10,000 dollars to each of the 33 miners\’ families.

"They\’ll get the money when they get out," he said in front of the mine. He also said he would ask other businessmen to contribute to a fund to give each of the miners a million dollars.

"When they\’re rescued, I\’m going to throw a party," he added.


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