Chilean officials are working to launch a gruelling, four month rescue operation to save 33 trapped miners, but have not told the men how long they will have to wait to see the light of day.
Drilling of an escape tunnel through 700 meters of earth and rock will begin “by the end of the week,” the engineer in charge of the rescue mission, Andres Sougarret, told reporters.
In the meantime, he said he will be mapping out a path to the miners that aims to avert another collapse at the San Jose gold and copper mine like the one that sealed its exit on August 5.
The miners were shut off from the outside world in a hot, dank shelter deep underground until Sunday, when rescuers punched a eight centimeter diameter hole through to them and found that they were alive and in good spirits.
Sougarret’s plan is to drill a new tunnel that will be 33 centimeters in diameter and then expand it outward to double the size, creating a chimney large enough to pull the miners out one by one.
But he has said that could take three to four months, raising concerns about whether the miners would be able to endure for so long.
Sougarret said he made the decision to not tell the miners they would likely have to sit tight in the shelter – roughly the size of a living room tucked to one side of a lengthy tunnel – until maybe Christmas.
Nutrients and water were being supplied to the miners through the narrow drill hole.
An intercom cable also has been threaded through the hole, enabling the miners to communicate with the surface, where their desperate but relieved families were camped.
But so far, they have been spared the bad news about how long they are likely to remain in their current predicament.
Chilean officials said they had asked the US space agency NASA for help in supplying the miners with nourishment.
“The situation is very similar the one experienced by the astronauts, who spend months on end in the space station,” Health minister Jaime Manalich told reporters.
The miners, whose survival triggered a wave of national euphoria Sunday, said they were hungry after surviving on emergency rations of two tablespoons of tuna fish and half a cup of milk every 48 hours. Water had been trickling into the mine, too.
“They asked for food, and toothbrushes and something for their eyes,” said Mining Minister Laurence Golborne.
They also rejoiced on learning colleagues were alive and escaped the August 5 cave-in unharmed. Their shouts of “Viva Chile” and rendition of the national anthem were aired on Chilean television.
Trapped miner Luis Urzua could be heard telling Golborne: “Mr. Minister, we’re fine. We look forward to being rescued.”
Paula Newman, a doctor in charge of monitoring the miners’ health, said glucose solution and medication had been sent to them to prevent ulcers. Later, they were to be given high-protein, high-calorie foods.
“They are all in perfect health, and none are traumatized,” said Newman. “Their complaints are much less than we could have expected.”
It was thought the group had illumination from a lighting system rigged up to a truck engine.
The miners ranged in age from 19 to 63. Many were football fans, Chilean media reported. At least one had diabetes.
Friends and relatives keeping up an emotional vigil outside the mine sent personal messages to the miners to lift their spirits — but avoided any talk of the long weeks and months that still lay ahead before any reunion.
“Hi daddy, it’s Romina, I’m so happy you’re well. This is one of the greatest joys of my life,” Romina, 20, wrote to her 63-year-old father Mario Gomez.
“We’d love to send you a football, but it won’t fit in the drill hole,” said another, from Carolina to her father Franklin Lobos.