Latin America & Caribbean

Chile's trapped miners spend 50th day underground

Miners celebrate Chile's independence bicentenary underground (18 Sept 2010)
Image caption The miners celebrated the bicentenary of Chile's independence underground

The 33 miners trapped in Chile have now been underground for 50 days, longer than any group of miners in recorded history.

In that time, one of them has acquired a new daughter, several have celebrated their birthdays and all of them have become national heroes.

The men, from humble backgrounds, have had several conversations with their country's president.

They have been briefed by a team of experts from Nasa, chatted to a group of Uruguayan rugby players who survived the famous plane crash in the Andes in 1972, and received messages of support from around the world.

And they have had time to think.

"Thank God that I've finally been able to take stock of things here, at the age of 39," one of the miners, Mario Sepulveda, wrote in one of his letters to his wife. "I think I'll benefit a lot from this rebirth."

The tale of the trapped miners has unleashed an outpouring of national pride in Chile. The men have been praised for their strength, their discipline and their stoicism - all much-prized virtues in this, one of the more sober and austere of South American countries.

The fact that the story has coincided with Chile's bicentenary - celebrated on 18 September - has only fuelled that sense of patriotism.

Red, white and blue Chilean flags flutter from buildings across the country. An often deeply divided nation has united behind the trapped men.

"I feel very proud of my people," Isabel Allende, a senator for the region where the San Jose mine is located, told the BBC.

"As a country we've handled something very difficult and complex and we've done it in the best way possible."

Far from over

Chile's President Sebastian Pinera has undoubtedly benefited from what is essentially a "good news" story.

His mining minister, Laurence Golborne, has handled the rescue operation sensitively and is now by far the most popular politician in the country. One poll this month gave him a 78% approval rating, and Mr Pinera has ridden on his coat tails.

But this saga is far from over. The miners face several more weeks of confinement before they can be rescued.

The government says it hopes to bring them out in early November, and although some engineers have suggested it might happen before that, there are clearly many challenges ahead.

Three drills are now being used to reach the men. Drill A is working steadily - but slowly. Drill B is faster but has run into problems.

On Wednesday part of it came loose and tumbled down into the miners' shelter. No one was hurt but it was a reminder that things could still go wrong. Drill C, the most powerful of the three, only started work this week and has a long way to go.

Even once the drilling is over, there will still be work to do.

The escape shaft will have to be reinforced with hundreds of metres of plastic tubing to ensure it does not collapse. A winch will have to be set up to haul the escape capsule up and down the shaft.

The engineers said this week that it would take between 60 and 90 minutes to bring each miner to the surface, meaning the whole process will take the best part of two entire days.

Fifty days of confinement may have come and gone but, for the miners, many more lie ahead.