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Chilean Mine Drama: Hope & Survival

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A patch of dirt in a desert in Chile is her home now-as close as she can get to the man she loves. Besides a sleeping bag and some clothes, Cristina Nunez Mesias, 26, has a poster with photos of her two young daughters, Arlene, 8, and Madeleine, 10 months, and the words, “Te esperamos Papito”-We are waiting for you, Daddy. And she has a letter sent up from her boyfriend, Claudio Yanez, 34, a miner trapped half a mile below. “He tells me to make sure Arlene goes to school, to pay the bills,” says Mesias, now in her fifth week of camping out. “Don’t be sad, he says. Be patient.” Yanez also writes about his big plans-he wants finally to marry Mesias. “I told him I will,” she says. “I’ll buy a new dress when he gets out. It’s like we’re falling in love all over again.”

Love, faith, fear, hope-emotions run deep at the San Jose gold and copper mine near Copiapo in northern Chile, where 33 miners are trapped beneath 2,300 feet of solid rock, and hundreds of their loved ones are waiting for them to be freed. The miners were sealed off on Aug. 5 when a section of passageway collapsed, and for 2½ weeks no one could be sure they were alive. Then, on Aug. 22, rescue workers finished drilling a 4-in.-wide borehole into an emergency shelter, and were stunned when a capsule they sent down came back with a note: “We are all, 33 of us, safe and well in the shelter.” That news “was much bigger than if we’d won the World Cup,” says Elizabeth Steger Ojeda, daughter of Jose Ojeda, the miner who wrote the note. “It was an inexplicable emotion.”

Now, as workers drill as many as three rescue tunnels through the granite-like rock-a process Chilean officials say may take up to four months-the trapped miners are doing what they must to survive. They are, relatives say, a tough bunch: many come from families of miners, and they are used to working seven straight days in the dark, dank mine (they earn up to $1,600 a month). Very quickly, the miners organized into what one Chilean official called “a full hierarchy,” with shift leader Luis Urzua, 54, handing out work assignments and Mario Gomez, 63-the oldest trapped miner-serving as the group’s spiritual leader. “He seems very calm,” says Gomez’s wife, Liliane Ramirez, 51, who spoke with him on a phone sent down one of two drilled boreholes (see box). “He’s worried we are sleeping badly or cold at night. He’s more worried for us than himself.”

So far, the miners are healthy and mostly in good spirits, and receiving regular shipments of food, medicine and oxygen. They have divided into teams that stay awake for 12-hour shifts, and twice each day, at 8:00 a.m. and 8:00 p.m., a nurse sends down a note letting them know a shift is over. “They have a very structured schedule,” says Dr. Albert Iturra, a psychologist who has spoken to the miners. “Breakfast at 8. Lunch at 12. Teatime at 5. Dinner at 8.” The men have specific tasks: some are in charge of food, others medical care, others sanitation. “They are going to have to work together down there,” says Blaine Mayhugh, one of nine miners rescued after four days trapped in Pennsylvania’s Quecreek Mine in 2002. “Some are going to get drained mentally, and they’ll need the other guys to pick them up.”

The miners can expect many grim moments in the weeks ahead, as they endure the longest stretch ever faced by trapped miners. (The previous record was 25 days in a 2009 Chinese mine collapse.) One big positive: these miners can contact the outside world. They’ve been heartened by brief phone calls and one-minute videoconferences with their families, hundreds of whom are gathered, like Mesias, in a makeshift tent city dubbed Camp Hope. Fernando Pena Rosas, 65, who is waiting for son Edison Pena, 34, has wedged photos of Edison-as well as a picture of Elvis Presley, his son’s idol-in some rocks near his tent. He unfolds a piece of lined paper and reads from the letter Edison sent up. “We thought we were going to starve to death down here,” Edison wrote. “You can’t imagine how much my soul hurt at being underground and not being able to tell you I was alive.”

An investigation is under way into what caused the collapse and why the mine did not have a second access route as required. But that’s not the main concern of the families at Camp Hope-all they want now is to see their loved ones emerge from the belly of the earth. Liliane Ramirez, who says her husband, Mario, “is not a man of many words,” shares a letter he scribbled, full of feelings he does not often voice. “I love you so much,” Mario wrote. “We have been together so many years, and we will always be together.” Ramirez holds tight to the ripped scraps of paper, as if they were hope itself. “I have a strong faith,” she says, “that everything is going to be okay.”