How the Chilean Miners Are Surviving Underground

The drama of 33 Chilean miners facing months of underground imprisonment is a real-time experiment in how the human mind, body and spirit adapt to such an ordeal

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Lorenzo Moscia / abacausa.com

Video grab from the first video showing three of the 33 miners inside the San José gold and copper mine, in Copiapó, Chile, on Aug. 30, 2010

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The older men, with their greater experience, will probably continue to run the show throughout the men's stay, though as the months pass, the younger men, with their greater physical endurance, may assume more authority. "This assumption of roles is innate in human culture," says psychologist Pam Ryan, executive chair of Psychology Beyond Borders, a Texas-based nonprofit group that studies ways to minimize trauma in wars and other disasters. "People say, 'O.K., some of us are good at this, some of us are good at that.'"

Sometimes survival strategies are less complex and are merely cosmetic — literally. One of the first things the men requested when a communications link was established was toothbrushes, and they've since been sent clean clothes and razors. In the first of the videos they've sent to the surface, they were shirtless, dirty and unshaven. Now they're cleaner, dressed in matching red shirts, and they've shaved. Tidiness translates into discipline, and that can be lifesaving.

"I talked to leaders in Vietnam who would take men into the jungle for 40 days at a time," says Kolditz. "Every day the men would have to wash off their face paint and shave. That creates civility, and civility prevents conflict and even atrocities."

Of course, the month the miners have spent below so far is not the same as the months they still face. Fatigue and illness may take a toll. Medication — including psychotropics — will be made available if doctors deem it necessary. Critical to the men's emotional health will be managing their expectations. Early on, there was speculation about when or if they'd be told how long their confinement would be, but no one seriously considered withholding the information. They've since been told the full range of possibilities — from as little as a month to sometime around Christmas. "You don't want to get into a situation in which they're ready to go and then they get disappointed," says Fairbank. "That can be devastating."

The odds of a relatively short stay improved recently when a second rescue drill was brought in; a third may be added. All three will dig simultaneously, and the tunnel that's completed first will be the one used for recovery. The actual extraction will not be much more fun than the current confinement. The men will be raised one at a time in a claustrophobia-inducing cage little wider than their bodies. The ride to the surface could take two hours, during which they may be blindfolded or sedated to keep them calm. It will take up to three days for all the men to be rescued, and someone will wind up being the last to go — and alone in the hole.

Until that day arrives, the miners are taking their pleasures as they can find them. Their single large room remains connected to adjacent tunnels, which provide a little privacy when the crowding gets too great — as well as a politely distant spot to use as a bathroom. NASA, which knows a thing or two about keeping people sane during long periods of isolation, has advisers on the scene. It's providing brighter lights that can be sent down the shaft to establish a day-night cycle. Space-agency docs nixed the idea of sending cigarettes; they're too toxic in an enclosed space. Wine, for now, has been forbidden too — ostensibly until the men's diets are balanced, though likely to keep their behavior balanced as well.

The miners have rebelled at these restrictions and recently rejected a delivery of peaches in protest. NASA considers such reactions normal — and even encouraging, since defiant men are not beaten men. The space agency points to similar small mutinies during Apollo 7, when the crew developed head colds and argued constantly with flight controllers, and Apollo 13, when the emergency abort put nerves on edge both in space and on the ground.

As back then, order will likely be preserved, since the miners know that's their best route to rescue. Psychologists and even media trainers are in regular contact with the men, teaching them how to handle the press, how to answer interview questions and how best to use that most handy of answers: "No comment." HBO, the Discovery Channel and four other production groups are already working on documentaries, and miners' families are being offered thousands of dollars for interviews. Most tellingly, many of the men — who have lived cash-only lives until now — are being taught how to open a checking account and manage a sudden surge in income. After confinement, there will clearly be better times to come.

This is an updated version of a story that originally appeared in the Sept. 20, 2010, issue of TIME magazine.

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