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Trapped miners impress NASA team

Trapped miners are similar to astronauts – held in confined spaces under dangerous conditions – so NASA sent scientists to the site of the Chilean mine collapse to advise officials there.

By Staff writer / September 7, 2010

NASA's deputy chief medical officer Michael Duncan (l.) speaks at a press conference alongside NASA team members Clint Cragg, James Polk, and Albert Holland, at the copper and gold mine where 33 miners have been trapped underground since August 5, in Copiapo some 725 km (450 miles) north of Santiago, September 3, 2010.

Luis Hidalgo/Reuters

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The 33 Chilean mining workers trapped deep underground for one month as of last Sunday are setting a remarkable example of human resilience in the face of potential tragedy.

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That's a view reinforced by an US advisory team made up of two physicians, a psychologist, and a safety engineer from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration who spent last week sharing ideas with rescuers about ways to keep the workers' health and spirits up during what promises to be a months-long rescue attempt.

The workers were mining or servicing equipment some 2,300 feet underground on Aug. 5, when a section of the mine collapsed, trapping them.

The Chilean government requested the visit based on the space agency's long experience working with people kept in confined spaces for long periods under dangerous circumstances. In this case, the miners are likely to remain underground for another two or three months, depending on how efforts progress to drill and line an escape shaft for the men.

The rescue effort the Chileans have mounted is "an operation probably unprecedented in scope," said James Polk, who heads the space-medicine division at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and a member of the NASA delegation, which returned from the mine over the Labor Day weekend. "Never have so many been trapped for so long so deeply" underground.

He and his colleagues say they were impressed by the approaches the miners took to keep themselves going during the 17 days it took for rescuers to locate them. And the team commended the approaches Chilean physicians and psychologists are using to keep the men active and engaged in rescue preparations while bringing them back from starvation -- enduring their initial entrapment on a tablespoon of tuna and perhaps an ounce or two of milk per day.

"The miners were in excellent spirits," said delegation member Albert Holland, a psychologist at the Johnson Space Center. "They had done a lot for their own health before they were even found."

Based on their time at the mine talking with mine officials, rescuers, and the trapped workers' family members, here's a sampler of the delegation's take on what the miners and Chileans have been doing right:

1. Immediately after the cave-in, workers underground formed a hierarchy led by Luis Urzua, the shift foreman at the time of the cave-in. Once the miners were found, rescue officials topside worked with that organizational set-up, recognizing Mr. Urzua as the leader.

At first contact with the surface, however, the strain of that load was beginning to show, the NASA team reports. Rescue officials recognized that Uruza had taken the entire burden of leadership on himself and encouraged him to delegate authority. While Urzua remains the leader of the group, others have taken up roles as medical leader and spiritual leader to lift some of the load from Urzua's shoulders, NASA team members say.

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