- Associated Press - Sunday, August 22, 2010

COPIAPO, Chile (AP) — Engineers reinforced a lifeline Monday to 33 miners trapped deep inside a Chilean gold and copper mine, preparing to keep them supplied with food, water, medicine and communications during the four months it may take to carve a tunnel wide enough to pull them out.

A team of doctors and psychiatric experts also arrived Monday at the remote mine, implementing a plan to maintain the miners’ sanity as well.

“We need to urgently establish what psychological situation they are in. They need to understand what we know up here at the surface, that it will take many weeks for them to reach the light,” Health Minister Jaime Manalich explained.

Engineers worked through the night to reinforce the 6-inch-wide bore hole that broke through to the miners’ refuge on Sunday, more than 2,257 feet below the surface. Using a long hose, they coated the walls with a metallic gel to decrease the risk of more rock falls in the unstable mine and make it easier to pass material in capsules nicknamed “palomas,” or “doves.”

The first capsules — which take about an hour to descend from the surface — will include water and food in the form of a high-energy glucose gel to miners who have almost certainly lost significant weight since they were trapped with limited food supplies on Aug. 5.

Also being sent down are questionnaires to determine each miners’ condition, along with medicines and small microphones to enable them to speak with their families during their long wait. Rescue leader Andre Sougarret said that the communications equipment could begin working within hours and that officials were organizing the families into small groups to make their talks as orderly as possible.

An enormous machine with diamond-tipped drills capable of carving a person-sized tunnel through solid rock at a velocity of 20 meters a day was on its way Monday to the San Jose gold and copper mine outside Copiapo in north-central Chile.

Engineers also were boring two more narrow shafts to the trapped men to ensure that their lifelines would remain intact while the larger tunnel is being carved.

It will be important for the men’s well-being to keep them busy and well-supported throughout this ordeal, Mr. Manalich said.

“There has to be leadership established, and to support them and prepare them for what’s coming, which is no small thing,” he said.

Euphoria that their men survived the collapse and anxiety for what’s coming next meant for a sleepless night for the miners’ families, who shivered through a cold, foggy night in Chile’s Atacama Desert.

“We didn’t sleep. We stayed up all night long hoping for more news. They said that new images would appear, so we were up hoping to see them,” said one, Carolina Godoy.

When the drill broke through solid rock to reach the emergency refuge where the miners have gathered, the trapped men tied two notes to the end of a probe that rescuers pulled to the surface, announcing in big red letters: “All 33 of us are fine in the shelter.”

“Today, all of Chile is crying with excitement and joy,” President Sebastian Pinera said at the mine.

And where many were beginning to give up hope, the scene above ground became a celebration Sunday night, with a barbecue for the miners’ families, roving musicians, lit candles and Chilean flags making the barren landscape seem festive.

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