Chile Dispatch: Trapped Miners Sent Small Luxuries, but Pine for More

BY Tom Bearden  September 7, 2010 at 6:56 PM EDT

COPIAPO, Chile | On Tuesday afternoon, a city of Copiapo truck dumped a fresh load of firewood next to a small cluster of tents where several trapped miners’ families have spent the last month camping on the rocky ground.

They need the wood. At night the temperature here in the Atacama desert drops to about 40 degrees.

The main entrance to the San Jose gold and copper mine is not a very pleasant place to camp. It’s noisy and hot during the day, and also a little chaotic. Heavy trucks deliver supplies and equipment all day long, often kicking up a fresh cloud of dust that drifts over the small tent city. Some of the tents are set up so close to the road that it’s a wonder that they don’t get run over during the night.

The whole plateau is covered with huge pieces of granite that have been hauled out of the mine as the tunnels and shafts were excavated over the years. In some places the piles are 60 feet high. Hundreds of posters, flags, and signs are attached to the rocks, as well as simple shrines bearing the names and pictures of the 33 trapped miners, offering encouragement and expressions of love.

A small army of journalists patrols the grounds, looking for fresh angles on a story that’s likely to last at least two more months. A camera crew setting up for an interview quickly attracts a small crowd of other reporters who wonder if they’re missing anything.

A daily 1 p.m. news conference is a major source of information, but Tuesday it offered little more than assurances that all was going well and an update on how deeply one of the rigs drilling an escape shaft has penetrated the mountain. Today, it’s about 325 feet down after eight days of drilling, which translates into about 2,000 feet to go.

Another rig is working to enlarge one of the three 4-inch tubes that rescuers on the surface have been using to communicate with the miners. That effort has reached about 30 feet down so far. And a third rig — a huge oil-drilling platform — is expected to arrive in pieces aboard some three dozen trucks on Wednesday.

It can drill much faster than the existing machines, but since it’s starting later, it’s not expected to complete a rescue shaft much before the other machines. The government is cautious about when any shaft might reach the miners. Their most optimistic estimate is mid-November, but other sources say it should be sooner.

The miners were treated on Tuesday to a video feed of a soccer game between the Chilean national soccer team and Ukraine. A small projector and a rolled up screen had been successfully sent down the tube. Several families on the surface shared the experience separately in a tent on the surface.

But despite the entertainment, some of the miners are beginning to rebel against government rules that only allow letters with positive messages to be sent underground.
They are also unhappy that no alcohol or tobacco is being supplied. Dr. Jorge Dias Anaiz, who is in charge of the 14 doctors overseeing the miners’ health, told the NewsHour that such restrictions are necessary to maintain the miners’ mental stability during the long ordeal they face in the coming months.

They will have to assist in their own rescue by moving an estimated 4,000 tons of rock that will spill out of a relief shaft before they can be hauled to the surface. Anaiz says the men are in good physical health now, and will have to stay that way for the labor that lies ahead.

We’ll have more from Tom Bearden on the Chilean miners’ story on Wednesday’s PBS NewsHour.