Latin America & Caribbean

Chile's trapped miners: Monitored and media-trained

Trapped miners in Copiapo (17 September 2010)
Trapped miners near the guide hole which will be widened to create an escape shaft

"They'll be bored," says Jonny Quispe. "That'll be their biggest problem down there."

Jonny was working in the mine on 5 August, the day the other 33 were trapped. He left the mine just a few minutes before a rockfall blocked their exit. He's now waiting above ground for his son-in-law, Carlos Mamami - the only Bolivian in the group.

In Campamento Esperanza, or Camp Hope, the families of the trapped miners have plenty to fill their time, not least speaking to the world's media.

More than 700m below the camp, their fathers, sons and brothers are living in dark, hot, damp tunnels.

To relieve the boredom, the rescue team remains continually in touch - sending food, medicine and other supplies down the three supply tubes in containers known as "palomas", or carrier pigeons.

Keeping healthy

Jorge Diaz, the doctor overseeing the operation, says the men work to a daily routine. They are divided into three groups of 11, each working eight-hour shifts on chores such as cleaning, clearing debris, measuring oxygen levels and reinforcing mine walls.

Romina Gomez
Romina Gomez, whose father Mario is the older miner underground

Their meals are strictly regulated for nutritional value and boosted by regular vitamin supplements.

"When we made contact they had gone 17 days without eating properly," Dr Diaz told the BBC. "They were undernourished, underweight, had been sleeping badly, had no strength and some serious dental problems."

Now most of those problems have been solved. All the men are back to a proper weight and are generally healthy, according to Jorge Diaz.

Their meals arrive at the same time each day - breakfast at 0830, lunch at 1300 and dinner at 2100, with snacks in between.

Milk and a sandwich for breakfast, roast chicken with noodles for lunch, for example, followed by fruit and beef for dinner with a sweetcorn soup.

The menu varies every day but nutritional and calorific content are carefully measured to keep the men in optimum condition, ready for their escape.

Graphic showing typical day. Eight hour shift - receiving and sending paloma packages, monitoring environment and clearing debris. 7-8 hours sleep - Lights out in living area and sleep on camp beds send down via paloma. 7-8 hours free time - Personal time, writing letters, playing games, exercises

Families above ground say the men are enjoying the food.

"It was a shock when we first saw him, because he had lost so much weight," says Romina Gomez. Her father, Mario Gomez, is the eldest of the miners underground, at 63. But now he's returned to his former self. "He's even got a bit of a belly," says Romina.

Mario Gomez also has silicosis, a common miner's respiratory disease. But this is under control, according to Jorge Diaz.

"It's responding well to treatment and he is able to work extremely effectively," he says.

First aid underground

The conditions mean there are lots of other health issues to monitor. The darkness, 95% humidity and high temperatures mean many of the men have eye, skin and fungal problems. And these conditions add to the risk of contagious disease.

Fortunately the doctors above ground can rely on someone below to administer the courses of vaccinations.

Dr Jorge Diaz
Dr Jorge Diaz is monitoring the physical and mental health of the trapped miners

Yonny Barrios was not supposed to be underground that day, but someone was missing so he filled the space on the shift. His workmates will be grateful that he did, because he is trained in advanced first aid.

"It was his destiny," his sister Lydia Barrios says as she sits in a tent at the mine's entrance. "It's lucky for the other miners that he was there."

As well as undertaking the vaccinations, Yonny Barrios has been tasked with taking blood samples and administering medicine to those who need it.

One unnamed miner is diabetic but Dr Diaz says his condition is stable, or better than stable. "His medication is the same as before, but now he has such a precise diet, which he never had earlier. He feels better now than ever."

Between working, sleeping and eating, the miners are being given lessons in first aid, especially in case of trauma injuries resulting from clearing rocks and debris.

'Positive view'

They are also being prepared in every way possible for their eventual escape. A sports therapist - Jean Romagnoli - has been sending down exercise routines. And an elocution professor, Alejandro Pino, is on hand to give media training.

The government is sharply aware of what has become one of the biggest news stories of the year and wants to make sure the miners know what awaits them when they finally emerge into the glare of the international media.

Doctors do not think it will be a problem. Claudio Ibanez, one of the psychologists with the rescue team, says the men are proving to be extremely resilient.

"They will be psychologically much stronger," he says. "They'll have a more positive view of life, and won't take simple things for granted any more."

The families above ground talk often about what their loved ones will be like when they see them again. Claudia Jimenez's father-in-law, Omar Reygadas, is one of the shift leaders down in the mine.

"He'll be fine," she says, laughing, as she prepares lunch in her tent.

"He'll just talk and talk, like before."

But how will he behave towards the family? Her young nephew, Nicolas, answers for her.

"Same as always!" he says.

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