By DONALD G. McNEIL Jr.
Defying grim predictions about how they would fare after two months trapped underground, many of the Chilean miners came bounding out of their rescue capsule on Wednesday as pictures of energy and health, able not only to walk, but, in one case, to leap around, hug everyone in sight and lead cheers.
The miners’ apparent robustness was testimony to the rescue diet threaded down to them through the tiny borehole that reached them on Aug. 22, but also to the way they organized themselves to keep their environment clean, find water and get exercise. Another factor was the excellent medical care they received from Chilean doctors who ministered to them through tubes leading 2,300 feet into the earth.
Late on Wednesday, the last of the 33 miners was pulled to safety. Chile’s health minister, Jaime Mañalich, said that one miner had acute pneumonia but was improving with antibiotics, and that two others needed dental surgery. At the moment, he added, the rest seemed to be in “more than satisfactory” condition.
Indeed, the 27th miner to be rescued, Franklin Lobos, is a former soccer star who juggled a soccer ball on his foot moments after emerging from the capsule.
While many details of the miners’ health care and living conditions have been reported, misconceptions and misinformation persisted as the ordeal continued and as the public’s fascination with their deprivation increased. In recent days, some television and newspaper commentators had speculated that the men would develop the bends on the way up, or suffer heart attacks or blood clots. Some people said that their muscles would have atrophied, that they could have serious skin funguses, vitamin deficiencies and rotted teeth and be blinded by the daylight.
None of those predictions came true — and some bordered on the absurd.
“The bends?” said Dr. J. D. Polk, chief of space medicine for the Johnson Space Center of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, whom the Chileans consulted. “The miners were at sea level. The mine entrance is at 2,400 feet. They were no more at risk of getting the bends than you are going up to the 15th floor in your building.”
The men kept themselves fit and received excellent medical care. And they were not confined to the “rescue chamber,” the size of a Manhattan studio apartment. (The first drill bit reached the chamber in August and the miners attached a note to it saying that all 33 were alive.)
“They had the run of the mine,” said Jeffery H. Kravitz, acting director for technical support at the United States Mine Safety and Health Administration. With half a mile of tunnels open, he said, “they had places to exercise and to use for waste.” One miner ran several miles a day.
“They even had a sort of waterfall they could take a shower under,” Mr. Kravitz said. “They requested shampoo, and shaved for their families.”
Also, fresh air was pumped in, so asphyxiation was never a danger. While coal mines can fill with methane gas, the San José operation was a copper and gold mine. The air was nearly 90 degrees and humid, but it contained about 20 percent oxygen, like outside air. The men dug three wells, and had potable water.
Doctors from NASA and Chilean Navy officers with experience in submarines were consulted on the strains of prolonged confinement. Alberto Iturra, a psychologist, talked to the miners, sometimes several times a day, to sort through their frustrations and depression.
Over all, Chilean health authorities “did a phenomenal job,” Dr. Polk said.
Just after the miners were discovered alive on Aug. 22, they were in danger, he said. They had survived for 17 days on just two spoonfuls of tuna, a cup of milk, one cracker and a bit of a peach topping every other day. Their digestive and insulin systems had nearly shut down and they were breaking down their own fat and muscle tissue.
People on starvation diets can be killed by eating carbohydrates too quickly; as the body struggles to make insulin in response, it can upset the electrolyte balance, stopping the heart.
“We learned that the hard way in World War II, giving candy bars to prisoners of war and concentration camp inmates,” Dr. Polk said.
Urine test strips were sent down the tube, allowing Yonny Barrios, a miner with paramedic training, to report that about half the miners were dehydrated and spilling ketones and myoglobin proteins into their urine, a sign that their muscles were breaking down, from starvation and, possibly, from sleeping on hot rocks.They were told to nearly double the amount of water they drank. Liquid gels with protein and vitamins were sent down the three-inch tube in packets known as “passenger pigeons.”
Slowly, day by day, their calories were increased to normal levels.
By Chilean Independence Day, Sept. 18, they were fully recovered and getting celebratory empanadas (baked as cylinders to fit down the tube), barbecued steak (cut into strips) and fresh papaya. Their request for wine was declined. They got cola.
(More recently, they had to be monitored to make sure they would fit in the rescue capsule, 26 inches in diameter.)
Eventually, all sorts of comfort goods were going down three narrow tubes: dismantled camp beds, clean clothes, letters, movies, dominoes, tiny Bibles, toothbrushes, skin creams. The smokers were first allowed only gum and nicotine patches, but doctors eventually relented and let 40 cigarettes a day go down.
The tubes also accommodated fiber optic cables and, by the end, each miner was getting a daily video consultation with a doctor. They also had jobs to do, including reinforcing walls and clearing debris from the rescue drills.
Mr. Barrios also took blood pressure readings, sent up urine and blood samples and gave shots against tetanus, pneumonia, meningitis and flu.
Mario Gómez, 63, the oldest miner, had silicosis — a respiratory disease caused by breathing rock dust — and was helped by inhalers, though he developed pneumonia. Another miner with diabetes received insulin.
Contrary to a rumor, the miners were not in the disorienting dark all the time. Small fluorescent lights were sent down early in their ordeal and a circadian rhythm was kept up, with a red light at nighttime.
The rumor about the bends, Dr. Kravitz said, could have arisen from the 2002 Quecreek mine rescue in Pennsylvania, in which pressurized air was pumped into a flooding mine to hold back water. Ten compression chambers were set up in case any miner got the bends, but none did. The bends, or decompression sickness, is a threat to scuba divers who surface too quickly; nitrogen that dissolved into their blood when they were under heavy water pressure comes out and collects as bubbles in their joints and blood vessels, causing pain and, in extreme cases, death.
Early on in the crisis, the Chilean authorities asked for advice from NASA, which has experience in keeping astronauts physically and mentally healthy.
All the miners came out of the capsules in expensive dark glasses — donated by Oakley — to protect them from the sun, but the main health effect they all shared was very pale skin from being in the dark so long.