Hours to Chile miners rescue, 33 men need a calm head below and above ground

With the Chile miners rescue set to begin Tuesday evening, concerns loom about how the 33 men will fare during their ride to the surface and upon their reentry to society.

By , Correspondent , Staff writer

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    A boy holds up a flag next to images of the 33 trapped miners at the San Jose Mine near Copiapo, Chile, on Oct. 12.
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Rescue workers are expected to start bringing the 33 trapped Chilean miners to the service within hours. Though that's cause for joy for the miners and their families, they will still have to steel their nerves for a potentially dangerous ascent.

Jimmy Sanchez, the youngest miner to be trapped in the San José mine in Chile, wrote in his most recent letter home: “I am not nervous yet. I think that when it is my turn [to be hoisted up], I will be a nervous wreck. But at the moment I am tranquil…. I have already suffered a lot and do not want to suffer more.”

In another letter, trapped miner Dario Segovia wrote to his brother Alberto: “We are all worried about the magnitude of the rocks. You know they are very strong.... When I get out, the first thing I am going to do is go to church with all of my family to say: Thank you to God.”

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In those and other letters published by the Chilean daily newspaper La Tercera, miners expressed feelings of optimism and anxiety as the world turns its attention to a perilous rescue effort that has never before been tried. With the final stage of the rescue set to begin in hours, they are concerns about the men remaining calm both during their trip to the surface and after they are reintegrated into a society in which they will have to grapple with new-found fame.

“The stress comes from being enclosed in the capsule itself, and from the process of the rescue,” says Humberto Marin, a professor of psychology in the traumatic stress and disasters field at Catholic Pontifical University in Santiago, Chile's capital. “But then they will have to face what happens afterwards, what will happen next week, in two weeks, in a month, two months, in a year. They are going to face a series of psychological aggressors.”

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Staying calm and aware

The rescue is set to begin this evening at midnight local time, though some authorities have said it could happen hours earlier. One-by-one, the 33 men will be strapped inside a 13-foot-tall capsule, called Phoenix I, and hoisted slowly through a shaft to the surface of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile after more than two months underground.

The men were trapped Aug. 5 when the ramp winding down into gold and copper mine where they were working collapsed 600 meters underground, trapping them in the deepest part of the mine.

Authorities gave the rescue a green light after the shaft was reinforced Monday and unmanned test runs descended successfully to the chamber nearly 2,000 feet underground. Five rescue experts will descend into the mine to oversee the operation and will be the last to leave.

Each ascent should take about 15 minutes, Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said today. In the case of emergency, the capsule can be sped to the surface much faster, Health Minister Jaime Mañalich said.

Mr. Mañalich said the miners won't be given any kind of sedation for the journey, as they will have to be fully aware of what is going on in case anything goes wrong during the hoist. The first miners to be lifted up will be the healthiest ones and will be asked to provide real-time information about their experiences, so that the miners who follow them will not be alarmed by bumps and other glitches along the way.

The 33 are "pretty calm," Mining Minister Laurence Golborne told reporters today in a press conference. "They are working on their own things. Preparing the move. They are helping us with the platform that needed to be built into the tunnel. They are working with the communications people, giving us some lines to establish video, TV image of the point where the Phoenix will land, so they are very busy."

Once they are out they are to be transported to a nearby hospital in Copiapo City by the Chilean Air Force.

Another ordeal begins

But their ordeal does not end there, says Mr. Marin. Men who previously lived in anonymity have now had their images, their backgrounds, even personal information about their families, broadcast around the globe. This fame could be hard for many to deal with.

As they reach the surface, they will face an onslaught of questions by a world curious to hear of their amazing survival story. There are more than 1,000 journalists on site vying for information.

The miners received a week of media training by the Chilean Security Association. The first thing they were taught to say was “no.”

“I told them that outside they are going to be in contact with people with many questions, but there is a code between us, the journalists, which says that you [the miners] can answer the questions that you most understand or that you want to answer,” Alejandro Pino, the regional director of the Chilean Safety Association, was quoted as saying in La Tercera. “I told them they have the right to not answer anything they consider indiscreet.”

Marin speculates that the men could face troubles when the time comes for them to get back to work. “Immediately they should not have problems with income, but they will not have pensions for the rest of their lives,” he says. “For some it will be complicated. Some of them only know how to do mining, and it is there they will have to confront certain fears.”

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