Chilean miners could be free by Wednesday

Installation of 15 steel tubes is the last step in rescuing the 33 trapped men

By Michael Warren - Eva Vergara
Published October 11, 2010 7:22PM (UTC)
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Chilean rescuers say they have finished installing steel tubing to reinforce the top of a shaft they will use to bring 33 trapped miners to the surface.

Navy Cmdr. Renato Navarro says the team installed 15 tubes to reinforce the top 295 feet (90 meters) of the shaft. That work finished Monday. Now workers are installing a platform above the shaft to support the rescue capsule in which the men will be brought to the surface.

Officials say they hope that on Wednesday they can start bringing the men out of the mine where they have been trapped for more than two months.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.

SAN JOSE MINE, Chile (AP) -- A torrent of emotions awaits the 33 miners when they finally rejoin the outside world.

As trying as it has been for them to survive underground for more than two months, their gold and copper mine is familiar territory. Once out of the shaft, they'll face challenges so bewildering, no amount of coaching can fully prepare them.

They'll be celebrated at first, embraced by their families and pursued by more than 750 journalists who have converged on the mine, competing for interviews and images to feed to a world intensely curious to hear their survival story.

They've been invited to visit presidential palaces, take all-expense paid vacations and appear on countless TV shows.

Contracts for book and movie deals are pending, along with job offers. More money than they could dream of is already awaiting their signature.

Right now they are true heroes. Some will become celebrities if they want to. But eventually, a new reality will set in -- and for most, it won't be anything like the life they knew before the mine collapsed above their heads.

"Before being heroes, they are victims," University of Santiago psychologist Sergio Gonzalez told The Associated Press. "These people who are coming out of the bottom of the mine are different people ... and their families are too."

A tentative but secret list has been drafted regarding which miners should come out first when the extraction begins in a rescue capsule, probably on Wednesday.

One by one they will take a twisting, 20-minute ride for 2,041 feet (622 meters) up to a rock-strewn desert moonscape and into the embrace of those they love. The capsule is expected to rotate 350 degrees some 10 to 12 times through curves in the 28-inch-wide (71-centimeter-wide) escape hole on its way up.

Chile's government has promised each miner at least six months of psychological support.

"All of them will have to confront the media and fame, and will encounter families that aren't the same as when they were trapped," Health Minister Jaime Manalich said. "All of them will live through very difficult situations of adaptation."

At first they'll feel besieged, poorly treated by the media and perhaps overwhelmed by even the attention of their own families, predicted Dr. Claus Behn, a University of Chile physiologist with expertise on disorders stemming from surviving extreme situations. Society will "demand to know every minute detail, and they're going to offer enormous quantities of money and popularity."

The problem with being a hero is that "if you look down from the mountaintop, all you see is the abyss. It would make anyone feel vertigo," Behn said.

The miners have had the support of a team of psychologists while underground, but that was designed mostly to help them endure the extreme conditions.

Last week, they also got an hour a day of training in dealing with the media, including practice with "ugly, bad and indiscreet" questions about their time underground, their personal lives and their families, said Alejandro Pino, a former reporter who was part of a support team provided by Chile's workplace insurance association.

"I see them doing extraordinarily well," Pino said. "They're ready."

The miners do seem happy in videos they filmed and sent to the surface. Some even joked around as they showed off their underground home.

But others have avoided the exposure. And while Manalich insists that the miners are unified, reflecting the disciplined teamwork that helped them survive, all that could change quickly once they are out.

Already, relations within and between their families have become strained as some seem to be getting more money and attention than others.

A philanthropic Chilean mining executive, Leonardo Farkas, gave $10,000 checks in the miners' names to each of the 33 families, and set up a fund to collect donations. Co-workers who weren't trapped, but were left out of a job -- including some who narrowly escaped getting crushed in the collapse -- wonder if they'll be taken care of, too.

One miner's child was invited onto a Chilean TV game show where she earned thousands of dollars, and 27 of the 33 workers have filed a $10 million negligence lawsuit against the mine's owners. A similar suit against government regulators is planned. And then there are deals for books, movies and personal appearances.

The money rush will be intense -- and temporary. The government required each miner to designate someone to receive their $1,600 monthly salary, and opened bank accounts for them that only the miners themselves can access. But Behn said the miners need good financial advice as well so that it doesn't melt away.

"If they're getting now a violent inflow of money, it should be administered so that it can serve them for the rest of their lives. And meanwhile, they should not for any reason give up their regular work habits," Behn said.

What often happens after situations of extreme isolation is that the survivor tells everything all at once, and when there's nothing left to say, misunderstandings begin. Instead, Behn advises taking things slowly, gradually reuniting with family and friends and trying to contain their expectations. Otherwise, "they're going to have really emotional storms that won't do anybody any good."

Manalich said the miners seem incredibly unified. Some of their relatives also expressed hope that the bonds they've formed below will enable them to lean on each other in the future.

Brandon Fisher doubts that.

Fisher, president of Center Rock, Inc., has been closely involved in this rescue -- his company's drill hammers pounded the escape shaft.

His hammers also helped save nine men in Pennsylvania in the Quecreek Mine disaster in 2002. They, too, came out of the hole blinking in the glare of TV cameras, and received intense media attention at first. But in some cases, their friendships and family relationships didn't hold up to the pressure.

"They're in for the surprise of their lives. From here on out, their lives will have changed," Fisher predicted. "There aren't too many of those guys who get along because of all the attention, the lawsuits, the movie deals. Once money gets involved it gets ugly."

Michael Warren

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Latin America Mine Disasters