Submariners and US space experts to aid mine rescue

IN LESS than a week, the 33 miners trapped below Chile's Atacama desert will have been stuck underground longer than any others in memory - landing authorities with unique challenges getting them through the four months it may take to free them.

The miners have now been informed it could take months to rescue them, Chile's health minister Dr Jaime Manalich said yesterday, as it emerged that anti-depressants were being lowered to the miners to help them cope.

A team of submarine commanders has been called in for advice on close-quarters living. the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa), with its experience of supporting America's astronauts in space, has agreed to assist. Exercise programmes are in place so the men are thin enough to fit through a rescue hole when the time comes to haul them out.

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It is a huge effort to confront the unique challenges faced by all involved to bring the men out alive.

The miners were trapped by a collapse on 5 August. Rescuers established contact on Sunday by drilling a 6in hole to the shelter. That hole and two others are now lifelines, delivering supplies, communications and fresh air to the miners while they wait for an escape tunnel to be drilled.

Chilean navy Captain Renato Navarro said officials called him and a team of submarine commanders in to advise them on how to treat men stuck in close quarters.

"There are many similarities," said Navarro. "Submariners have to deal with the force of the sea on top of them, the miners with almost 700 metres of Earth over them."

By next Tuesday, the men will have been trapped longer than any other miners in memory. Last year, three miners survived 25 days trapped in a flooded mine in southern China. Few other rescues have taken more than two weeks.

To meet the challenges, Chilean officials have asked Nasa for advice on "life sciences" issues and technology.

Astronaut Jose Hernandez said the space agency could help the Chileans understand how to provide "psychological support."

Mr Hernandez also said the Americans could help design "an exercise protocol to prevent muscle atrophy".

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Establishing a daily and nightly routine is important, as is having fun, Dr Manalich said. The rescue team is creating an entertainment programme "that includes singing, games of movement, playing cards," he said."We want them to record songs, to make videos, to create works of theatre for the family."

The men's families fear they may lose hope at the prospect of being trapped underground for up to four months.

Interior minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter said that it would be detrimental to tell the miners in detail how long it might take to dig them out - although he said they are aware it would take some time.

How long it might take remains in dispute.

Family members said they think officials are overestimating the time the rescue will take, so as not to disappoint if there are problems.

They add that the miners understand they are in for a wait and don't need to be protected from the truth. But some mining experts think it will take far less than the four months to dig the rescue tunnel.

Larry Grayson, a professor of mining engineering at Penn State University, said it could take just 25 to 30 days. Gustavo Lagos, a professor at the Catholic University of Chile's Centre for Mining, estimated the job could be done in two months if all goes well - but four months if glitches crop up.

Lilianett Gomez, whose father, Mario, is trapped in the mine, said she thinks the miners know their rescue won't be quick. "They know how long it will take for them to be rescued. As miners they know the work very well," she said.