The ongoing rescue of the 33 Chilean miners trapped for over two months in a collapsed mine shaft half a mile beneath the ground hinged as much on technical expertise as it did on the strength of spirit of the miners and their rescuers.
In particular shortly after the trapped miners were discovered to be alive and coping, Chile called upon NASA to advise the rescue team on survival in extremely confined spaces.
On August 31, a NASA team, including two doctors, a psychologist and an engineer, was reported to have arrived in Santiago to begin consultations.
With preliminary estimates for the capsule rescue plan suggesting that it might even take four months to complete, the focus of this Chile-NASA dialogue was to facilitate the development of a programme to help sustain the miners during their isolation. The State Department said the discussions would touch upon whether the U.S.' experience with extended space travel, particularly with respect to the International Space Station, could provide Chile with perspectives that could be applied in the context of the miners.
On Wednesday, as over 13 miners emerged safe from the ground via the “Phoenix” capsule, Michael Duncan, Chief Medical Officer and head of the NASA team in Chile reported back on the operations.
Commenting on the medical treatment of the miners in the days ahead he said, “Each of the miners will be observed for any medical conditions that they may have developed.” He added that in particular they would be looking for skin infections or infections of the sinuses or the lungs, conditions that the miners may have acquired due to exposure to the warm, humid and dusty conditions in the mine.
On the miner's psychological condition, Dr. Duncan said, “I believe that the camaraderie and the bonding that the miners have developed through this ordeal will always keep them together. I think it's much like someone being in the military, someone who has served in war time, for example.”
He said that each miner might have a different reaction but for the most part “they will want to stay as close as they can and in fact, we are hearing that on the media reports from the mine site that the miners who have been rescued want to stay until all the miners are on the surface.”
Touching upon some of the risks faced by the miners subsequent to their rescue – such as the possibility of negative reactions to sudden celebrity status – Dr. Duncan added, that that such reactions were possible, but “Chilean doctors and psychologists have been working with the miners and their families in an effort to educate them on these types of issues and the sudden celebrity that the miners now find themselves in.”
He said that while the miners did not have to be in isolation or quarantine, they would, however, be “sheltered away from the pressures of the media and other entities that want to talk to them.”