On Ice And in Space, Lessons to Keep Chilean Miners Safe, Sane for Rescue

By David A. Fahrenthold and Marc Kaufman
     Sept. 1 (Washington Post) --      The lessons that could
help keep 33 trapped Chilean miners safe and sane during their
months underground were learned at desperate times in isolated
places: ice-bound sailing ships, prisoner-of-war camps,
malfunctioning capsules whizzing through space.
     They include: Don't over-promise. Keep track of night and
day - even if you can't see daylight. Encourage friendships - but
watch out for cliques. Let everybody have privacy - but don't let
anybody become a loner.
     And remember the keys to survival in what psychologists call
"extreme environments": Entertainment. Structure. Hope.
     "I'm not a 'Lord of the Flies' guy. I'm very optimistic this
group will be able to stay stable for a long time," said Col.
Thomas A. Kolditz, who heads the department of behavioral
sciences and leadership at the U.S. Military Academy.
     But, Kolditz said, the potential for conflict and violence
is always there. "Have you ever been in an airport where the
airplanes were stuck and the airlines weren't giving [people] any
information? If you take that and magnify that many times over,
that's an example of what can happen," he said.
     On Tuesday, NASA, which was called in to consult because of
its experience in preparing astronauts for isolation, said it was
working with Chilean officials on a plan that would, among other
measures, enlist celebrities to help brighten the miners'
     The men - trapped in a tunnel deep underground since a
collapse at the San Jose mine Aug. 5 - have spoken remotely with
a national soccer star and Chilean President Sebastian Pinera.
NASA officials said they might recommend involving other famous
Chileans and possibly astronauts.
     A video of the miners, released late Tuesday by the Chilean
government, shows them smiling, shaved and wearing red T-shirts.
The short video, which doesn't appear to have sound, is a stark
contrast to previous videos that pictured the men shirtless and
more subdued, with some getting emotional while recording a
message for loved ones.
     At a news conference, James Michael Duncan, deputy chief
medical officer at NASA's Johnson Space Center, said the miners
"have already shown great courage and ability to survive."
     The rescue ahead is daunting, and its success is not
guaranteed: Officials say they need to drill a 28-inch shaft
through half a mile of solid but soft rock. The process could
take two to four months.
     The miners have survived for 17 days on meager supplies,
connected to the surface by six-inch boreholes, which can be used
to deliver food, water and electricity. Officials have also
discussed sending down antidepressant medication, if needed, and
aluminum bed frames, towels, shampoo and hot-weather clothes that
wick away sweat.
     The miners don't have the kind of physical needs, for warmth
and nourishment, that turned other stories of isolation into
nightmares. The Donner Party turned to cannibalism in the
California mountains in the winter of 1846-1847. In 1972,
survivors of a plane crash in the Andes ate pieces of dead
     "The worst thing is to be thrown into darkness [after a
collapse], not knowing if anybody knows they're there," said John
Grubb, an adjunct professor at the Colorado School of Mines. Now,
he said, "it's just a matter of coping with the time. It's really
boring and all, but I would think that the worst is behind them."
     But mental health experts say boredom and time - if not
handled correctly - can be terrors.
     Their case studies are often drawn from decades ago, before
advances in technology and communication reduced real isolation
to the realms of war, space, polar ice stations and underground
mines. Many of the starkest lessons are taken from the polar
expeditions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
     "I so wish I could talk to those miners and tell them about
Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated Antarctic voyage. If they knew that
27 men survived for 20 months in the harshest conditions known to
man, with no contact with the outside world and no immediate hope
of a rescue, I think these miners would know that they could get
through this," said Alison Levine, who has led polar expeditions
and expeditions to Mount Everest. She was citing one of the most
famous stories of polar survival, beginning in 1914, when
Shackleton led a crew of men across wild polar seas to safety
after their boat was crushed in ice.
     One key lesson, survival experts said, is to keep up the
rhythms of day and night. In the mine's constant darkness, they
said, the men might have trouble falling asleep, leading to
fatigue, irritability and bad decisions.
     In one early polar expedition, a ship doctor made his
patients sit by roaring fires. Now, experts say, the same goal
might be achieved by keeping the crew to an unchanging schedule
of sleep, breakfast and work.
     Another maxim, for those communicating with the miners from
the surface, is that honesty is crucial. Experts said keeping
dispiriting information from the miners could carry risks.
     "Expectations unmet are a horrible thing, especially when
you're already psychologically stressed," said Jerry Linenger, a
U.S. astronaut who was aboard the Russian Mir space station when
a fire broke out in 1997.
     He and two Russian crewmates were trapped in the
malfunctioning craft until a rescue ship arrived four months
later. Linenger said one of his lowest points during that ordeal
was a time that he was told he would be able to speak with his
pregnant wife over a radio link.
     "I prepared for a week. I wrote down what I would say and
then crossed things off and added new ones. I was so excited. But
the time came, they said she was on the line, and all I got was
static," he said. "After that, I expected nothing and was
psychologically more healthy."
     For the miners' leaders, historians said, it will be key to
parcel out work - to provide a sense of purpose - and leisure
time. There seems to be plenty of work to do because the miners
must clear debris caused by the tunneling from above.
     Providing entertainment in the mine will be far easier than
it was for ice-locked polar explorers, who organized musicals,
soccer games and lectures to distract sailors from their idleness
and the sound of ice crushing their ships' hulls. In this case,
the borehole that has brought the miners food will also be used
to send MP3 players, speakers, a mini-TV projector, recordings of
soccer games and films. The miners can also speak to relatives
     Psychologists said the leaders of the group must take care
to ensure that the miners work and play together. They said it's
normal, even helpful, for people in isolation to form groups with
people of similar backgrounds or habits. It can even be helpful
to have a scapegoat - someone whom the group blames, at least in
jest, for its misfortunes.
     In these situations, though, a withdrawn person is a danger.
"You need a certain degree of that, to maintain your sanity,"
said Lawrence Palinkas, a professor at the University of Southern
California who has studied polar expeditions. "Too much of that
becomes counterproductive."
     If all 33 are eventually rescued, psychologists said, the
effects of the ordeal are likely to follow them to the surface.
Some could be good: Peter Suedfeld of the University of British
Columbia said survivors of traumatic situations often come out
with a greater confidence in their abilities and feeling more
     But other effects could be disorienting. Like returning
soldiers, the miners could emerge to find that their wives or
family members have taken on new responsibilities in their
absence. And they could find the world overstimulating after
months in the dark and quiet. Suedfeld said this is a common
reaction among modern-day researchers returning from winters at
the pole.
     "When I come back from a polar-research visit, I don't drive
for at least a week because, you know, [there's] too much going
on," Suedfeld said.
     fahrenthold@washpost.com kaufmanm@washpost.com
     Staff writer Rob Stein contributed to this report.
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