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3 Options Explored to Rescue Chilean Miners, But No End in Sight for Saga

September 7, 2010 at 6:00 PM EDT
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It's been a month since a mine collapse in Northern Chile trapped 33 men. As efforts continue to keep them healthy and happy, a rescue date still isn't set. Jeffrey Brown talks to Tom Bearden about the options being used in the rescue efforts and how the miners and their loved ones are holding up.

JIM LEHRER: And to the Chile miners story.

It’s been more than a month since that mine collapsed in northern Chile. Thirty-three miners have survived. That’s a world record for staying alive underground. But there’s no firm date on when the miners might finally be rescued. NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden is covering the story for us. Jeffrey Brown talked to him this afternoon.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tom, give us an update first on where things stand with the rescue effort. There’s three separate plans at this point, right?

TOM BEARDEN: That’s right. There are. The first plan, which is located up on the hill over there, if Brian (ph) can pan over and show it to us, it’s the option number one, it’s called. That’s a drilling machine that’s in the process of trying to drill a hole that’s large enough to be able to retrieve the miners in a steel capsule that would be hauled up from a half-mile underneath the ground.

You can’t see the other two options. In fact, one of them is not here yet. But the second option is to enlarge the communications hole that’s been in place now for a week, and — and possibly make that large enough to do the same thing, remove the miners out from the mine through the capsules.

The third option is arriving tomorrow, a huge drilling rig that will arrive here from the airport on 42 different trucks. It’s an oil drilling rig. And it will be assembled on the far side of the mountain. And it would be the fastest of the options. But since it’s getting a much later start than the others, it would be expected to arrive at about the same time as the first two options.

Assuming that all goes as planned, they think that this whole process will take between two and three months, although there is one report out there that this could take as long as Christmas.

JEFFREY BROWN: Can you give us more of a feel for the site and the size and scope of the operation there?

TOM BEARDEN: Sure. We’re basically located right here on a saddle between two mountains. And it’s sort of a spoil area for the rock that’s been removed from this mine, which has been in use, by the way, for almost 100 years, although heavily commercial only for about the last 30.

And as you can see, there’s granite walls all across this area. And there are shrines to the 33 miners that have been set up by their families, pictures of the miners, expressions of love, hope, and goodwill. It’s a pretty chaotic scene at times, too, because this is the main entrance to the mine. And heavy trucks come down this road every few minutes. They stir up dust, create a lot of noise. And camped right next to that are a number of the families of the fellows who are trapped down underneath the ground.

And they’re literally camped right on the edge of the road. And they’re doing their best to survive there. They seem, for the most part, those that we have talked to, in pretty good spirits, until you talk to them for a little while, and then you find out that there’s a great deal of anxiety and a great deal of concern for their loved ones.

JEFFREY BROWN: I know there are ongoing efforts to keep the men entertained and as comfortable as possible. I understand they watched a soccer game today. Is that right?

TOM BEARDEN: Actually, they’re watching it right now, as we speak. It started, I guess, about a half-an-hour ago. They were able to get a small projector down through that four-inch communication hole and a roll-up screen. And we’re told that that’s been set up in the rock wall inside the quarters where the men are living. And they’re watching the game.

Coincidentally, just down the street from here, there’s a tent where some of the miners’ families are also watching the same game. And I guess, in that sense, you could say that they’re sharing this as a community experience. And we’re pretty sure — although I don’t speak Spanish — that the announcers of that game are probably talking to the miners directly and talking to the families as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I gather you talked to authorities today about one miner with a medical issue they’re trying to deal with?

TOM BEARDEN: A couple of days ago, one of the miners apparently wound up with a problem with his urinary tract. And we spoke to the chief medical officer who is supervising the 14 doctors who are dealing with these miners. And, obviously, a doctor can’t go down that four inch hole and physically put hands on a patient. So they’re doing this all by remote control.

There is a young man down there who has some minor medical training from an earlier career. He’s been helping them administer shots and vaccinations for various things like tetanus and typhoid.

But they were preparing to instruct him on how to perform a minor operation on this miner to try to correct the problem he was having urinating.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the overall level of confidence in the rescue at this point? What are officials there saying?

TOM BEARDEN: We spoke to the governor of the Atacama today. And she told us that there is every confidence that this operation will be completed successfully. It is an expensive operation. We asked her about the cost. There are various estimates about what this is costing, but $10 million seems to be the number that’s most frequently circulated.

They’re cautious in the sense that they don’t know what they may encounter as they drill through all of this rock strata. The machine we showed you a minute ago, when it got down about 30 feet, was forced to stop. And they had to cement, because there was a fault line running through that section of rock. And they were concerned that they needed to prevent any possible flooding.

So, they stopped, started back up again. That’s the kind of challenge that all of these drilling rigs — drilling rigs will face. And those are the sorts of things that are not predictable.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. And I know you’re looking into some of the psychological health issues for a story tomorrow, right?

TOM BEARDEN: That’s right. We have spoken to a number of medical professionals about the processes that they’re doing. They’re having to do the same thing as the medical doctors, talk to them through fiberoptic television lines.

And they’re on the alert for potential problems with depression and — and men who might have reached the breaking point. And they’re doing what they can, both in terms of counseling and also other kinds of support, like better food and better water.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. We will look for that. Tom Bearden, in Chile, thanks.

TOM BEARDEN: My pleasure.