October 04, 2010 12:00 PM

During the many weeks that 33 miners have been trapped half a mile below the surface of Chile’s San Jose gold and copper mine, they have cleaved to discipline to help maintain their sanity. Eight hours each day, they work; the other 16 they relax, exercise or sleep. But on Sept. 17, as the whirr of a drill grew louder, indicating that completion of a 12-in.-wide, surface-to-cave lifeline was at hand, the miners broke their routine. “The men were anxious and full of anticipation,” says a government source. “Most of them spent all night awake, waiting to see the perforator break through.” Finally at 10:35 a.m. the drill penetrated the roof of a work area near the men’s living shelter, spraying water and lifting hopes. “Everyone’s spirits are up,” says Elizabeth Steger Ojeda, 27, daughter of miner Jose Ojeda, 45.

Call it one small step for the rescue effort, one giant leap for morale. The next day, the miners joined with their compatriots to celebrate Chile’s bicentennial. Aboveground a flag was hoisted bearing the names of the miners, who have dubbed themselves “Los 33.” Below, in their 530-sq.-ft. living space, the men waved their own flags and had a holiday meal of meat empanadas-rolled a bit thinner to fit through the two 4-in.-wide boreholes that handle food, phone and other supplies-with a cooked peach-and-maize drink, about 200 calories more than the maximum 2,500 they usually get daily. “We keep them very busy!” says Liliane Ramirez, 51, wife of miner Mario Gomez, 63.

The day after the celebration, the miners-in addition to their food, medical care and sanitation tasks-began clearing the debris generated by the drill, a chore that will intensify as the T-130 widens its opening and two other rescue drills break through the rock (see box). “They are extremely happy to be starting that job,” says Dr. Claudio Ibanez, one of five psychologists keeping a close eye on the miners. Off-hours the men exercise, read, write letters, play cards or dominoes and watch movies. Edison Pena, 33, a jogger, stays fit daily, says his brother Rafael, 30, by “running half an hour” through the tunnels and doing 500 stomach crunches.

Juan Illanes, who turned 52 underground, has a different source of fortitude. “My brother’s psychological strength comes from the cohesion of the group down there,” says his brother Oscar, 51. With government officials now conservatively eyeing a November release-they initially forecast a Christmas rescue-the question has begun to circulate: Will the miners’ esprit endure after they are freed? “Usually,” says Ibanez, “people come out of these situations with a newly activated sense of gratitude and an awareness of all we have.”

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