In less than a week the 33 miners trapped under Chile’s Atacama Desert will have been stuck underground longer than any others in memory.
This has left Chilean authorities with the unique challenges of coaxing them and their families through the ordeal.
A team of submarine commanders was called in for advice on close-quarters living. Exercise programs are now in place so that the miners are slim enough to fit through a rescue hole.
The miners were trapped by a collapse on the 5 August, and rescuers established contact with them Sunday by drilling a 6-inch-wide hole to their shelter. That hole and two others are now lifelines, delivering supplies, communications and fresh air to the miners while they wait for an escape tunnel to be drilled.
Chilean navy Captain Renato Navarro said officials called him and a team of submarine commanders in to counsel them on how to treat the men stuck in close quarters.
“There are many similarities,” said Navarro. “Submariners have to deal with the force of the sea on top of them, the miners with almost 700 metres of earth over them.”
On 31 August, the men will have been trapped longer than any other miners in memory. Last year, three miners survived 25 days trapped in a flooded mine in southern China. Few other rescues have taken more than two weeks.
To meet the unique challenges, Chilean officials have asked NASA for advice on “life sciences” issues and technology that can help the miners, and the space agency will do what it can, NASA spokesman Mike Curie said.
Family members said they think officials are overestimating the time the rescue will take, so as not to disappoint if there are problems. They add that the miners understand they are in for a wait and don’t need to be protected from the truth.
But some mining experts think it will take far less than the four months to dig the rescue tunnel.
Professor of mining engineering at Penn State University Larry Grayson said it could take just 25 to 30 days. Gustavo Lagos, a professor at the Catholic University of Chile’s Center for Mining, estimated the job could be completed in two months if all goes well – but four months if glitches occur.
Lilianett Gomez, whose father, Mario, is trapped in the mine, said she thinks the miners know their rescue won’t be quick. “They know how long it will take for them to be rescued. As miners they know the work very well,” she said.