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.

Luis Hidalgo/Reuters
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.

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.

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.

2. The workers organized into groups and focused on meaningful tasks that either would help them during a final rescue.

"It's very important for people in situations like this to have meaningful work to do, not make-work. These men are no different," Dr. Holland said during a press briefing earlier today on the delegation's trip. "Part of their meaningful work is to continue the responsibility of extracting themselves from this mine."

Indeed, the men have been maintaining their section of the mine, servicing mining equipment there, as well as mapping their location in relation to other tunnels and halls, This has allowed them to identify suitable locations for latrines and showers.

3. Topside, rescuers established communications between the workers underground and their families. Regular communications on a predictable schedule is vital for moral, NASA team members say, but it's one that needs careful management over time.

"Excessive communication can be problematic, believe it or not," Holland says. Too much communication, especially about problems under ground or with a trapped worker's family can prompt the wrong person to try to assume responsibility for solving a problem over which he or she can has no practical control, leading to increased frustration or anxiety.

4. Rescuers have established a regular supply service between the mine and the surface. It consists of capped tubes roughly four inches across and six feet long that are sent down a steel-lined shaft. The tubes carry food, clothing, books, letters, a communal iPod for music, and soon will deliver a portable video player so the workers can watch movies.

Each "pod" takes 10 minutes to descend, thanks to gravity, 10 minutes to unload and reload with objects, ranging from medical samples to miners' lamps in need of charged batteries, and another 10 minutes for a winch to haul a pod back to the surface.

With the Chileans already undertaking an impressive rescue attempt, the NASA team's recommendations amounted to fine-tuning an already well-oiled machine.

Up to now, the Chileans have treated the effort like a sprint -- essentially what it was as they initially tried to locate the trapped workers. Now, however, the effort becomes more like a marathon, team members say. That takes additional planning.

The NASA team recommended a more-refined approach to alternating light and dark periods in the mine to help the workers keep their internal bio-clocks in sync with what they will return to on the surface. They also recommended training for the workers and their families on what to expect as a result of long-term separation. For surface operations, the team recommended that the Chilean team expand its depth chart at key positions -- shifting from one person to at least two to spread the workload.

And workers and families will need an enormous amount of support in handling the first 24 to 48 hours after the miners emerge, as well as long-term support for additional challenges the family may face as it readjusts to the aftermath of the mine collapse.

Rescue is more than pulling the miners from the depths, explains Michael Duncan, deputy chief medical officer in the Space Life Sciences directorate at the Johnson Space Center and the delegation leader.

"The work is just beginning when the miners come out of the mine," he says. "The miners will have in their own right a certain celebrity status in their own country. There will be a lot of pressure put upon them by society, by the media, by others wanting a part of their time. I think the Chileans had not gotten to the a point of thinking about how difficult this post-rescue-effort is going to be."

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