(by Matt Moffett, The Wall Street Journal, wsj.com) COPIAPO, Chile – Entombed one-half mile below ground for more than two weeks, the 33 miners at the collapsed San Jose mine maintained a leadership structure, cooperated to stretch out scant canned-food stores, and fretted over missing fellow miners.
As rescuers have had more contact with the men trapped below ground since the Aug. 5 collapse of the northern Chilean mine, a clearer picture is emerging of how they faced an ordeal that has already extended beyond what all but a handful of mining-accident survivors have ever endured.
The information comes as the rescuers and the miners exchange phone calls and written messages, using a four-inch diameter shaft that has been sunk into the small chamber where the miners are holed up.
Early contact reveals the miners retained self-discipline and a sense of humanity amid deep frustrations. They were well enough organized to have made one effort to escape-a bid that might have succeeded had mine owners kept the proper safety equipment on hand.
Their attitudes were revealed in one of their first questions after rescuers established contact. One miner, who identified himself as “shift boss Luis Urzua,” asked what had happened to some co-workers who had been separated from the 33 men at the time of the cave-in.
When told they had escaped to the surface without fatalities, Mr. Urzua and the miners listening to the conversation let out a cheer.
The miners also conveyed urgent requests for toothpaste, fruit and beer, according to Congressman Giovanni Calderón.
A Chilean psychiatrist, Rose Marie Fritsch, told Chile’s 24 Horas television newscast that what was most striking was the miners’ “capacity to organize themselves, to conserve certain structures and stand tall,” she said. “It’s evident that they didn’t lose their organization or their survival system.”
The miners will need to maintain that sense of solidarity: The government has said that extricating them will be a epic undertaking that could take three to four months.
Rescuers intend to dig the men out using a 30-ton drill, machinery so massive it is being brought to the mine in a three-truck convoy. It isn’t clear that the miners know how long they will have to wait to be free.
Much of the information on the miners’ underground survival strategy started coming out late Monday when Mining Minister Laurence Golborne was able to speak by phone to Mr. Urzua.
“Hearing them so animated … reflects that they have had a great strength, and a very well-structured system of organization,” Mr. Golborne said.
Mr. Urzua, the miners’ apparent leader, was born in the capital of Santiago, had been an amateur soccer coach and is the father of one son, according to Chilean press accounts. The soft-spoken 54-year-old had worked at San Jose for only 10 months.
Mr. Urzua said the men had access to water that they had been digging out of the mine.
Rescuers said they had been told the men had limited food intake-a couple of tablespoons of tuna, half a cup of milk and a canned peach for each miner, every other day. Food rations were just about exhausted when rescuers discovered the men Sunday.
The survivors were spending most of the time clustered in one chamber in the mine, but were able to move around one tunnel, with the aid of light from vehicles kept in the mine. Dust lingered in the air, burning the men’s eyes.
The men had tried to make an escape early in their ordeal by climbing out through a ventilation duct. That plan was foiled because there was no emergency ladder.
Mr. Golborne, the mining minister, said he thought the miners might have gotten out within 48 hours of the cave-in if the ladder had been in place, as he says it should have been.
The mine’s Chilean owner, Compania Minera San Esteban Primera, hasn’t addressed the ladder issue but has said the mine was safe. The company is facing investigation by Chilean authorities for the cave-in and previous irregularities.
Jaime Manalich, the health minister, said that both mental and physical health of the miners-32 Chileans and 1 Bolivian-was “extremely good.”
Rescuers are starting to send the men messages from relatives, who are camped out around the mine, through the drill hole that serves as the underground link. The letter writers were consulting with a team of psychologists stationed at the mine to make sure the missives didn’t bring up issues that might agitate the men.
“This will really be a test case as far as someone being stuck underground so long,” said Louis King, managing director of Australian Mine Rescue Consultants, an emergency response and rescue consultancy. “Imagine being stuck with co-workers in a very small room for a very long period of time.”
The government has already sent down rehydration tablets and glucose gel, as a precursor to putting the men back on a solid-food diet. Mr. Manalich said later on the men would be expected to undertake a physical exercise regimen. He said they have to be in good shape to fit through the narrow hole that rescuers plan to hoist them out of once the big drill has finished the rescue tunnel.
Mr. Manalich says he has contacted NASA to see what lessons Chile can learn about maintaining the health of people who are confined to limited spaces for long periods. …
Write to Matt Moffett at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. In what country have miners been trapped for over two weeks?
2. How many miners are trapped at the San Jose mine?
3. What does initial contact with the miners reveal about their character?
4. Why did the miners’ effort to escape fail? (see para. 4, 17-18)
5. How long do officials expect the rescue operation to take?
6. Why did Chili’s minister of health contact NASA?
CHALLENGE QUESTION: What other national disaster did Chili face in 2010?
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For background on Chili, go to the U.S. State Department website.