Drilling begins in Chile

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Drilling has begun on a rescue tunnel for the 33 miners trapped underground in Chile. Anchor Marco Werman get details from the BBC's Gideon Long, who is at the mine site.

MARCO WERMAN: The drilling has finally begun in Chile. Those 33 miners trapped underground since August 5th can now hear their rescue tunnel being dug. Engineers will spend the coming weeks, possibly months, boring a hole about a half a mile deep with a massive 31-ton drill. If all goes to plan, it's this shaft, about as wide as a bicycle wheel, that will be used to pull the miners to safety, one by one. The BBC's Gideon Long is in Copiapo, where the collapsed mine is. Gideon, digging began today but this could be a long and difficult process. How will they actually get the miners out? How will they dig them out?

GIDEON LONG: Well, I'm sure it will be a long process. It's a two-part process. At the moment, engineers are drilling one hole which is around a foot in diameter. When that reaches the refuge they then start again and they widen that hole. The first hole is going to take a month just in itself. And then they have to come back up to the surface and they start drilling again and they widen it to make it around two-foot wide and the hope is that that will then be wide enough to bring the men to the surface. And once they've done that, they lower a cage down the mine and they bring the men up one by one. But it will take a long time. The government is still saying it could be up to three or four months.

WERMAN: And the miners were told that they actually need to help out with the relief effort themselves by working 24-hour shifts and hauling some 4,000 tons of stone. What's that all about?

LONG: That's right. As they dig done, the drill drops all its debris down through the hole, down through the initial hole which they're drilling at the moment. So all of this debris will fall into the mine close to the refuge where they're staying. So it's going to be hot, dirty, dusty work and it's going to be fairly unpleasant for the miners for a long time. And the miners have been told that to aid the process, they're going to have to clear that debris out of the way. So they're going to have to work in shifts. We're not sure if it's going to be round the clock, 24 hours, but they're certainly going to have to work in shift to clear tons and tons of rubble to keep the refuge clear so that they can then be lifted to the surface once the drilling is completed.

WERMAN: I mean presumably 33 men moving 4,000 tons of rubble, I mean that's going to take a lot of strength. Do they have the physical and mental health to last that long?

LONG: Well, they probably don't at the moment, but it will be some time yet before they actually have to start digging that rubble. In terms of their physical health, they are improving. We were talking to some of the medics here at the mine today and they say that they expect over the next 24 hours to give the miners their first hot meal. The first hot meal since they were discovered alive last Sunday. Until now, the medics have been building up their strength very gradually, very cautiously, be giving them first just water to rehydrate them and then later glucose capsules and high-protein milk drinks. And then in the last few days things like cereal bars and fruit. And we understand that today they will get sandwiches. Tomorrow is their first hot meal. We've been told that they're going to get rice and mincemeat, or rice and chicken. So physically they are improving. The concern's really about their mental health because obviously this will be a terrible ordeal for them. Staying underground so long, for up to three or four months.

WERMAN: Now, apparently NASA we've heard already has kind of loaned their experience with people dealing in confined spaces for long periods of time. Apparently the miners have also received Playstations to goof around with and nicotine patches, I read for the smokers who obviously can't smoke in the mine, but must be going through pretty heavy withdrawal right now.

LONG: That's right. The rescue team are looking for anything really, any little thing which can just make life slightly more bearable for the miners. So yes, some of them are heavy smokers. We've understood that some of the miners smoke two packets of cigarettes today, so they're obviously going to be suffering from withdrawal symptoms. And the medics are going to be dropping nicotine patches down to them. Also things to keep them amused. Mp3 players, for example. The little video machines so they can watch film and they can watch football. Playing cards, for examples, dominos, anything to keep them amused. They've also come up with an exercise regime for the miners, so they can move around in that tunnel and keep vaguely fit. And, as you say, there's this team from NASA arrived. They just arrived in Chile. They are expected at the mine tomorrow. It's a team of four people, including a doctor, a psychologist, a nutritionist. Obviously, NASA have an enormous amount of experience of helping astronauts deal with months of solitude in space, so hopefully they can put that experience to good use here.

WERMAN: The BBC's Gideon Long at the entrance to that collapsed mine in Copiapo, Chile. Thanks very much, Gideon.

LONG: Thank you.