Chile miners trapped since Aug. 5 finally got the food and toothbrushes they requested. The next challenge is to help them cope with the possibility of living underground for four months.
A team of 33 copper miners trapped a half-mile under Chile’s Atacama Desert on Tuesday got the food and toothbrushes they requested in their first phone contact with the surface.
Relief crews are now using a pair of fist-sized boreholes to provide the Chilean miners with food and medicine, a relief after more than two weeks when they survived on a spoonful of tuna fish and a couple of crackers every 48 hours.
The miners were trapped Aug. 5 when the collapse of a 700,000-ton rock blocked the long, winding vehicle ramp they normally took to return home after 10-hour shifts more than 2,000 feet underground. Rescuers gave up on extracting them through a ventilation shaft when it, too, caved in. The country celebrated Sunday after drillers from the surface broke through to a reinforced refuge area and found all 33 alive.
Helping the workers settle into their new life, however, will be a bigger challenge.
“The aid starts with the most basic needs: food, shelter, and a sense of security. Now they need help organizing their time,” says Humberto Marin, a psychologist with the trauma, stress, and disasters unit at Catholic University in Santiago. “They have to have a daily routine, to stick together and to help work on the rescue.”
Mental preparation for the ordeal
The next trick is to help the Chilean miners deal mentally with four more months of being trapped deep underground.
“The case we’re dealing with in Copiapo is totally new to science,” says Mr. Marin. “We expect a percentage will develop psychological disturbances if we don’t help them.”
Javier Castillo, a leader of the mine workers’ union, said the 33 were most worried about their families.
“[The miners] need mental tranquility, but now the owners are talking about declaring bankruptcy so they don’t have to pay their workers. The last thing the miners need is that kind of worry.”
Messages of support
President Sebastian Piñera spoke with the miners yesterday via a phone line installed in one of the newly drilled holes and assured them that their families were being cared for.
The donations and messages of support have been “tremendous,” Mr. Castillo said. Local government, the union federation, and residents donated the food for the workers and family members waiting outside the mine for 17 days, and there is now an e-mail address where the public can send messages, he said.
Marin, who is a firefighter as well as a professor, said it’s important to be cautious even with well-meaning messages.
“Messages have to be spread out over time,” he said. “They are going to be down there for four months. If they get a lot now and then the flow diminishes, they may feel locked up. We don’t want them to feel that the focus is changing.”