COPIAPO, Chile – In less than a week the 33 miners trapped under Chile's Atacama Desert will have been stuck underground longer than any others in memory — taxing authorities today with unique challenges on coaxing them and their families through the ordeal.
A team of submarine commanders was called in for advice on close-quarters living. NASA is advising on "life sciences" and giving the men a sense they control their own destinies. Exercise programs are in place so the miners are skinny enough to fit through a rescue hole.
Even a masseuse roams a makeshift camp for the miners' families, relieving tensions with a touch.
All in an effort to confront the unique challenges being faced by all involved to bring the miners out alive.
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Extreme patience is seen with each new day that breaks over Camp Hope — where the families of the miners have erected tents, awaiting their loved ones — but there are high expectations for results.
"Patience, longing to see my husband, that is what is keeping me here," Cristy Coronado, 40, said as she shivered off the morning cold Thursday, waiting for news of her husband, miner Juan Aguilar. "I have camped here each night since he disappeared and I will stay until he returns. That is my effort and I expect the same from those responsible for this disaster."
The miners were trapped by an Aug. 5 collapse, and rescuers established contact with them Sunday by drilling a 6-inch-wide (15-centimeter-wide) 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 Capt. Renato Navarro said officials called him and a team of submarine commanders in to counsel them on how to treat men stuck in close quarters.
"There are many similarities," Navarro said. "Submariners have to deal with the force of the sea on top of them, the miners with almost 700 meters (2,200 feet) of earth over them."
On Aug. 31, 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 unique challenges, Chilean officials have asked NASA for advice on "life sciences" issues and technology that can help the miners, and the space agency will do what it can, NASA spokesman Mike Curie said.
NASA astronaut Jose Hernandez said via Twitter that the space agency, with its long research on aiding astronauts isolated in space, could help the Chileans understand how to provide "psychological support for those trapped."
Hernandez also said the Americans could help design "an exercise protocol to prevent muscle atrophy."
That is something the Chilean rescue operation is wasting no time in doing.
Even though the miners have undoubtedly lost a significant amount of weight, officials are trying to ensure they don't bulk up before their rescue. They say the miners will have to be no more than 35 inches (90 centimeters) around the waist to make it out of the tunnel.
The escape tunnel will be about 26 inches (66 centimeters) wide — the diameter of a typical bike tire — and stretch for more than 2,200 feet (700 meters) through solid rock. That's more than 80 inches (207 centimeters) in circumference, but rescuers also have to account for the space of the basket that will be used to pull the miners to safety, one by one.