Latin America & Caribbean

Waiting game for trapped Chilean miners' loved ones

Banner at the mine
Image caption The miners have become national heroes in Chile

"We're all our own psychologists here," says Cristina Nunez Mesias, whose partner of 11 years, Claudio Yanez Lagos, has been trapped along with 32 other Chilean copper miners some 2,300ft (700m) underground for the past month.

"We know [the men] better than anyone, so you go with your instincts," says the 26-year-old, who recently agreed to marry Claudio.

Two months ago, Claudio asked Cristina to marry him but she declined.

Now, she says, circumstances are different and she wants him to know that she will always be there for him.

Angry

Besides keeping the miners healthy physically, the Chilean government faces the daunting task of keeping them in a good mental state.

But some of the miners are reportedly getting tetchy. Relatives told journalists a few of the men got angry when they did not receive all the letters they were expecting from their relatives.

Image caption Cristina promised to marry her partner when he gets out

Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said the government hopes to establish two permanent lines of communication to the men soon, but in the meantime essentials such as food take precedence over missives from relatives.

A video link on Sunday went some way towards calming tempers. For the first time, the miners were able to see, as well as speak, to their relatives. And, instead of one minute, they were allowed five minutes each.

At the weekend, Nasa scientists from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas - who have experience of sending astronauts into space for long periods of time - wrapped up a visit to the mine.

'Unprecedented'

The team, which included doctors, a psychologist and an engineer, said authorities should regulate the miners' day-and-night sleep patterns, boost their Vitamin D intake and phase in an exercise programme as their nutrition improved.

Michael Duncan, the centre's deputy chief medical officer, has likened the men's situation to that experienced by astronauts in long periods of isolation.

But he said the task facing the Chilean government was "unprecedented".

"To my knowledge, there has never been this situation before, where we've had this many men trapped this deeply below the surface of the earth," Mr Duncan told a media conference.

"There has never been a situation like it," Alberto Iturra, the psychologist in charge of the mental well-being of the miners, told the BBC.

He said the aim to get the men back to health as soon as possible had been achieved, and that regular hot meals were being sent down one of the narrow supply holes to keep the men fed.

The men are being given high protein, high-calorie foods. But nutritionists have established a limit of 200g (0.44lb) of carbohydrates per day to make sure the men will be able to squeeze through the narrow escape shaft - some 66cm (26in) in diameter - that is being drilled.

Doctors, psychologists and authorities have advised relatives not to tell the miners how many weeks or months the rescue will take in any communication they have with them.

Mr Iturra says the miners have been coping well so far, but "challenges will arise".

Particularly challenging, he said, would be the "problem of being forced to live together at all times".

Trauma fears

How he is getting on with the miners is not a question Alicia Campos has dared ask of her son.

Daniel Herrera Campos, 27, is not a miner. He is a driver and just happened to be delivering a bulldozer when the tunnel caved in.

"He's a quiet boy, really quiet," Ms Campos says. Unlike some of the seasoned miners trapped alongside him, Daniel does not have as much experience of coping with the limited space and lighting.

"He's bound to come out with some sort of trauma," Ms Campos says. "He'll either be afraid of the dark, or of confined spaces, like lifts."

But she hopes that her son will find it easier to bond with colleagues now that the men have split into smaller groups: el Refugio, la Rampa and 105 - named after the shelter, the ramp and Level 105 sections of the 1km-long tunnel where they are trapped.

Image caption Alicia Campos says her son doesn't have much experience of mines

The men have been encouraged to take control of their environment in any way they can: choosing leaders for the different groups, working eight-hour shifts and organising their living space.

Some artificial lighting is already helping the men maintain a routine, which psychologists say is important for living and sleeping patterns. But Nasa's Michael Duncan says lighting conditions should be improved "so there's an ambiance of day and night".

The families have received plenty of advice on how best to communicate with their loved ones in order to keep them in good spirits. But most admit to just playing it by ear.

"We use any and all psychological knowledge we have," says Claudia Jimenez, whose father-in-law, Omar Reygadas, is one of the 33 trapped men.

"It's just common sense," she says. "You keep it upbeat and positive to try and cheer him up."

At the weekend, former rugby players from Uruguay who survived more than two months of isolation in the snow-covered Andes after their plane crashed in 1972, visited the mine.

The men, whose story inspired the book and film Alive, urged the miners to stay strong.

"In the same way that we were able to get off that mountain and lead normal lives, they too will get out and lead fantastic lives," Jose Pedro Algorta told the men.

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