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Chile turns to space, sea experts for advice in mine disaster

By the CNN Wire Staff
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Voices heard from collapsed mine
  • NEW: The focus is on miners' physical and mental health
  • NEW: Chile asks for experts from its navy and from NASA
  • Former U.S. mine safety chief says two problems exist: supplies and rescue
  • Authorities say it could take months to rescue miners

(CNN) -- Now that 33 miners who have been trapped in the earth for 19 days have been found alive, the focus is shifting to their physical and mental health as they face a potentially long period before being rescued.

Chile is calling on experts from space and sea to consult on how to maintain the psychological well-being of a group of men crammed into a small space.

Experts from NASA and Chilean navy submarine experts have been called to help, Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said Tuesday.

The miners have been trapped inside the San Jose copper and gold mine since an August 5 cave-in. A probe over the weekend reached the miners, who survived inside a shelter some 2,300 feet underground.

Officials have estimated that it could take three to four months to reach the miners. So far, authorities have spoken with the miners via microphone, but have not disclosed to them their lengthy prediction for a rescue.

"We have still not told them the timetable, but we are sure that as miners, they know this will take a long time," Health Minister Jaime Manalich said.

As it is, relief such as food and nutrients will also be reaching the miners in small amounts.

Gallery: The trapped miners
Video: Hope for trapped miners in Chile
Video: Chilean miners send note
Video: Keeping hope alive

Manalich said that the miners will likely not be given solid food for five days. Instead, authorities will send down fluids, liquid proteins and liquid vitamins.

The strategy is a precaution, Manalich said, as doctors do not know the exact health of the miners. So far, however, the diagnosis looks good, he said.

None of the men suffered major injuries, though some have minor injuries, Manalich said. Some of the miners reported eye irritation from the dust.

Health officials are designing an exercise program and light work to keep the trapped miners physically and mentally active, Manalich said.

On Monday, the trapped workers cheered, applauded and sang the country's national anthem in their first verbal contact with officials.

Several of Chile's top officials gathered around a white telephone outside the mine as the miners' voices crackled through the speakers in an emotional conversation that was also broadcast on television.

"We are listening all of us, strong and clear. Who's speaking?...How are you doing?" said Golborne, according to CNN Chile.

Miner Luiz Urzua responded: "We are well and hoping that you will rescue us."

The miners cheered as officials informed them that their family members had been keeping vigil outside the mine, CNN Chile reported. The San Jose mine is near the town of Copiapo, in the Atacama region in northern Chile.

"Yesterday, all of Chile celebrated in all the plazas of the country that we had made contact with you. Today they are going to be even happier that we have spoken," Golborne said.

The miners survived for more than 17 days by sharing small amounts of tuna and mackerel that were in a shelter, along with water, President Sebastian Pinera told CNN en Espanol on Monday.

"They had very little food," he said. "They told us they ate tuna and mackerel every other day, and that they shared ... a jar of peaches among the 33."

The area where the miners find themselves is about 50 square meters (538 square feet), Pinera said.

He described the shelter as a type of cavern where they had access to an area called the "workshop," where they found batteries for light and water for consumption.

Pinera estimated the temperatures where the miners are hover between 32-35 degrees Celsius (90-95 degrees Fahrenheit).

"They've got the immediate problem of getting supplies and food to these individuals who have been trapped for 18 days now. ... They've got to satisfy their basic needs," he said.

"Then, they've got the secondary problem, longer-term problem, of drilling down a 28-inch, 30-inch hole and getting it down 2,500 feet in very unstable rock conditions. And to do that, in order to make it successful, they have got to go slow. And that's the problem, is that despite the fact that everybody wants to rush, the fact is they have to use a slow drill in order to try to stabilize and get stable the hole so that they can, in fact, pull people out from that entrapment underground," McAteer said.

McAteer told "American Morning" the mental and emotional components of the miners' entrapment may be difficult to overcome.

"How do you come up with things for them to do and arrange things so that they can get their attention diverted from just sitting there waiting? That's going to be the real challenge for the Chileans and for the rescuers," he said. "I think the fact that they've made it these 18 days is very, very positive. But the euphoria of making contact with the surface is going to last a couple days and then it is going to be a long slope."

McAteer added that the Chilean government and counselors were helping the "resilient" miners, but modern technology could be the biggest boon to the caged miners' mental health.

"I see no reason why you couldn't pass cellphones down to them or computers, tethered down to them. We're in a new day. There'll need to be -- something will need to be done to divert their attention," he said.

Chile's mining minister reiterated Monday that those responsible for the cave-in will be prosecuted, a point also made a few minutes later at a separate event by the Chilean president.

"We will investigate and punish those who are responsible," Pinera said.

Family members had cheered Sunday when Pinera held up a handwritten note pulled from the mine. The note was tied to a probe authorities had lowered earlier Sunday.

Written in Spanish in red ink, it said simply: "We are fine in the shelter, the 33 of us."

CNN's Karl Penhaul contributed to this report.