On August 5th an estimated 700,000 tons of rock collapsed and closed off the main section of the mineshaft. The men had just gathered in the dining room/refuge are for lunch. The dining room is 12 ft by 12 ft and has a fortified ceiling that is 15 ft high. One moment sooner and later would have had tragic results.
For five days they waited for the dust to settle enough so they could assess the situation. Even with their headlamps on, the dust made it impossible to see. When the dust did settle, the men realized they were trapped in a large open space of about 1200 ft long. A chemical toilet, industrial water and a very small emergency food supply sustained the miners for the 17 days they waited for word from the outside world.
“They were 17 days in the darkness - 17 days during which in the first five days they could barely breathe from the dust,” the rescue effort’s lead psychiatrist, Alberto Iturra Benavides said. “And then they had to say, ‘I didn’t die’ - this in itself stops you from being frightened.”
The group is now divided into 3 groups of 11 men each. They sleep in three different sections of the mine and work in three different shifts. They do have lunch together to maintain unity. Tubes pump 106 quarts a day of water and 4024 cubic ft of air into the miners but little can be done to reduce the humidity that consistently is about 90%.
The men’s mental health and survival is ultimately depended on each other. Ilturra’s team of psychologists talk with the miners twice a day but the men have organized twice a day prayer services and meet for a version of group therapy they call “showing their cards” once a day.