The Mine and the Mind: The Mental Toll on the Chileans

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Roberto Candia / AP

A photograph of Johny Barrios, one of the 33 trapped miners, and a sign that reads "Strength Johny B" in Spanish outside the collapsed San Jose mine in Chile

There's almost nothing about the plight of the Chilean miners trapped beneath nearly half a mile of rock in the Atacama Desert that doesn't horrify us. There's the crowding — 33 men confined in a 600-sq.-ft. safety chamber smaller than a one-bedroom apartment. There's the heat — a stagnant 90°F relieved only by a thin trickle of fresh air that makes it down through a narrow ventilation pipe. There's the gloom — a near total blackness relieved only by the flashlights on the men's helmets. Worst of all, there's the calendar: the miners face up to four more months of such confinement before a rescue tunnel can be drilled and they can be pulled to safety. That kind of ordeal, we say, would drive any of us nuts — and we're right; it probably would.

Live entombment holds a particular terror for all human beings, and miners are no exception. They may habituate themselves to darkness and heat and very tight spaces, but when the system breaks down — when there's no prospect of re-emerging into the light after a 10-hour shift — their minds can break too. And the longer they're below, the worse the damage may be.

"Miners train for a lot of things, but it's hard to prepare for something like this," says Dennis O'Dell, director of occupational safety and health for the United Mine Workers of America and a veteran of 20 years in the mines himself. "They're taught first to have a route of escape. It's only when that fails that you have to think of taking shelter."

Chilean officials are being roundly criticized for the shabby state of the mine and the poor safety record that led to the Aug. 5 collapse — but they're also getting a lot of kudos for the way they've responded since, particularly the attention they've paid to the emotional welfare of the imprisoned men and their families. Ever since the miners were located after a 17-day search of the maze of subterranean shafts, officials have been reaching out to psychologists, family counselors and even NASA doctors, who know better than most about how people endure long periods of confinement far away from loved ones.

"Our doctors are already working with their doctors on this," says NASA spokesman Bill Jeffs. "We have a lot of experience in protecting people in enclosed environments for extended periods."

The biggest challenge the men face while waiting for rescue is the utter breakdown of structure in their new, exceedingly limited world. There's no day-night cycle, there's no work to do, there are no formal mealtimes. There's also no social hierarchy — though that, at least, will be rectified quickly, if it hasn't been already.

"Leaders will emerge," says O'Dell. "Miners tend to be like a family when they're below, so the younger ones will defer to the older ones in an almost son-to-father way. There will also be brotherly bonds that form, with everyone looking out for everyone else." That will be especially important when fights break out — and they will. "I was stuck in a mine elevator for just a few hours once, and people quickly started getting panicky," says O'Dell. Panic sets tempers on edge and tempers can blow easily. When this happens, the graybeards among the 33 will be especially needed to contain the hotheads.

Despite the dark, most of the men will have some sense of what time it is on the outside world — and those who have watches certainly will. But they'll probably stop paying attention since it simply won't be relevant in more than an academic way. Though lights are being threaded down the ventilation pipe — along with food and water — it's unlikely that any kind of predictable sleep-wake or morning-evening schedule will be established. Thirty-three men will have 33 different circadian cycles and in an already high-stress situation, it would not do to try to enforce an artificial one. "That works in the military," says O'Dell. "It wouldn't work in this situation."

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