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Coping with their cabin fever.

They get laundry service, television, three hot meals a day and ice-cream for dessert.

Everyday life for the 33 Chilean miners trapped underground now includes some home comforts - at least those that can be lowered through narrow holes.

The miners, who have been trapped in the San Jose mine since August, are sleeping on cots that were sent down in pieces and reassembled. They can speak with their families using a phone that was taken apart and put back together down below. They have brief video chats with their families on Friday and Saturdays, for a maximum of eight minutes each, thanks to a fibre-optic cable.

Settling in for the long wait, they have established a disciplined routine, designed not only to keep them mentally and physically fit, but working together.

The plan, according to the rescue effort's lead psychiatrist, Alberto Iturra Benavides, is to leave them with "no possible alternative but to survive" until drillers finish rescue holes, which the government estimates will be done by early November.

"Surviving means discipline, and keeping to a routine," Iturra said.

So when the miners do get moments to relax, they can watch fun television - 13 hours a day - mostly news programmes and action movies or comedies, whatever is available on cable that the support team decides won't be depressing. They've seen 'Troy' and 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button' with Brad Pitt and Jim Carrey's 'The Mask'.

But no intense dramas - "that would be mental cruelty", insisted Iturra.

Though some miners have requested them, personal music players with headphones and handheld video games have been ruled out, because those tend to isolate people from one another.

"With earphones, if they're listening to music and someone calls them, asking for help or to warn them about something, they're not available," Benavides said. "What they need is to be together."

Togetherness is what initially saved the miners when an estimated 700,000 tons of rock collapsed on August 5 and sealed off the central section of the mine shaft above them, plunging them into darkness and kicking up thick clouds of dust that made it impossible to see, even with their headlamps on full.

The collapse happened just as the men were gathered for lunch in the refuge - a space about 4m by 4m with a fortified ceiling nearly 4.5m high that normally doubles as a dining room in the lower reaches of the mine. Any sooner or later, and some of the miners probably would have been crushed.

When the dust finally settled about five days later, they could see they were trapped in a large open space, about 360m long, which runs up a corkscrew-shaped shaft to another workshop about 600m underground.

The space had several mining vehicles with battery and engine power, a chemical toilet and industrial water, which together with their meagre emergency food supply enabled them to survive with no help from the outside world.

"They were 17 days in the darkness, during which in the first five days they could barely breathe from the dust," Benavides said. "And then they had to say, 'I didn't die' - this in itself stops you from being frightened."

Since August 22, when a bore hole reached the miners, the rescue and support team has grown to 300. It includes communications experts, doctors, psychologists, launderers and cooks in addition to the drilling engineers, in what has become a small village in the middle of an Atacama desert.

The crews work in teams and shifts to provide everything necessary for the miners' survival until they can be pulled out.

Benavides said the miners have taken it upon themselves to solve problems as miners do - through hard work.

Divided into three groups of 11, they sleep in three separate parts of the mine, work in three shifts and share lunch at noon to maintain unity. Their routine starts with breakfast - coffee or tea with milk and a ham and cheese sandwich.

Then lots of labour: Removing the loose rock that drops through the bore holes as they are being widened into escape tunnels; cleaning up rubbish and emptying the toilet; and attending to the capsules known as 'palomas'.

The first paloma was sent down to the miners on September 25. Spanish for carrier pigeons, they keep the miners alive with supplies. The miners must quickly remove the contents - food, clean clothes, medicine, family letters - and send back up material such as dirty clothes, rolled up like sausages to fit.

Each trip down takes 12 to 15 minutes, with four minutes to unload and at least three miners are constantly stationed at the bore hole for this work.

"They know that the paloma never stops," said Alejandro Pino, the rescue operations chief for Chile's Workplace Insurance Association.

Another bore hole is used for communications, electricity, air and water. Tubes pump at least 100 litres of water a day and about 114 cubic metres of air an hour, said Erik Araya, a geologist for Codelco, Chile's state-owned copper company. This enables the miners to take showers and slightly reduces the sweltering heat down below.

Thanks to the pumped-in air, some lower sections have dropped to 28 degrees Celsius, while the upper chamber remains above 32 degrees.

There is little they can do about the humidity - it remains at 90 per cent, Pino said - and many of the miners can still be seen shirtless on a camera that the team sent down.

The team was thinking of sending down running shoes so the men can exercise, but the heat remains oppressive.

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Publication:7 Days (Dubai, United Arab Emirates)
Date:Sep 29, 2010
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