Chilean miners' families pitch up at Camp Hope

Hundreds migrate to makeshift village atop San Jose mine to show support for 33 men trapped underground

Lilianett Gomez, daughter of trapped Chilean miner Mario Gomez
Lilianett Gómez, daughter of trapped miner Mario Gómez reads a letter her father passed through a small hole. Photograph: Roberto Candia/AP

Laughter drifted from the tents and distant cheers filled the air of Camp Hope as the latest convoy of support arrived.

In the trucks and caravans came families, friends and the curious – a migration of hundreds upon hundreds into the remote northern Chilean desert where 700 metres below the surface a remarkable drama of human survival continues to unfold.

The 33 miners whose fate has entranced their country and many beyond, began their 20th day trapped underground awaiting the slowest of rescues, which is not expected for three more months.

Mountains of firewood and crates of apples next to the tents that make up the makeshift village just below the San José mine stood testament to the long wait ahead.

Camp Hope now has zones for children, community bulletin boards, scheduled bus shuttle services to nearby cities and, increasingly, a sense that tragedy has been averted.

While Chilean officials continued to warn that huge technical and logistical challenges lie ahead in getting the men back up out of their refuge 688 metres underground, families were laughing and preparing BBQs, happy with the knowledge that the miners are alive.

With bonfires and an abundance of positive energy the camp felt less like a refugee camp and more like a scaled-down festival.

"I can breathe easy now. There's no more doubt," said Pedro Segovia, 38, brother of Dario Segovia, one of the trapped miners.

"Before, we didn't know if the machinery could really find them at 700 metres." He described the San José mine as a death trap.

"I worked there for a year and they used to call all of us who worked there 'the kamikazees'. It was always a dangerous place to work; all of us who went in there would wonder, 'will we make it out?' Once, a piece of the roof, a 100kg rock, fell on me. Luckily, it shattered on a [protective] screen and only bruised my back."

Segovia was taking turns with family members and friends to stand watch in their tent, 200 metres below the mouth of the mine. The family had built a shrine to their beloved Dario, where a solitary candle was burning between images of Jesus, the Virgin Mary and San Expedito – in Chilean folklore the saint capable of speeding up bureaucracy and desperate causes.

Beside the tent, embers from the evening bonfire were still warm.

As the families cooked their dinners, their trapped relatives were facing nutritional difficulties. After almost three weeks in 36C temperatures with just two days' worth of rations, the miners have lost so much weight that government officials chose not to release portions of a video showing the emaciated men.

Supplies of water and a calorie and protein-enriched milk drink were delivered to them today and solid foods should reach them by the weekend.

Despite their hunger, the miners have been told that they cannot put on too much weight: a waist measurement of over 35 inches (90cm) will make them too big to fit through the escape tunnel, said the health minister, Jaime Manalich. The men have been sent tape measures to keep tabs on their girth, and exercise tips.

Manalich said rescuers were applying a "holistic" plan to support the miners' wellbeing during the months it may take to dig an escape tunnel, including activities to keep them from gaining weight.

"We're working to determine a secure area where the miners can manage things. The space they're in has about 2km of galleries to walk around in," he said.

"We hope to define a secure area where they can establish various places, one for resting and sleeping, one for diversion, one for food, another for work," he said.

He added that specialists had reviewed each miner's condition, based on the information they sent up to the surface. "We can say that they are all healthy, with just a few minor problems."

Even before the rescuers managed to contact the men, the trapped miners' self-imposed rations were meagre: two spoonfuls of tuna, a sip of milk, a bite of cracker and a morsel of peach every other day.

Health was also a problem. A massive dust storm that followed the pit collapse on 5 August temporarily blinded the miners for six hours and left them with eye infections and burning eyes.

In an attempt to limit respiratory problems and reduce the dust in the air, enriched oxygen will be pumped into the cavern as soon as a third emergency shaft is completed this week.

Health officials were also running laboratory tests on the water drunk by the men – much of it allegedly drained from the radiators of vehicles inside the mineshaft. The escape tunnel will be about 26 inches (66cm) wide – the diameter of a typical bike tyre – and cut through solid rock.

Rescuers also have to account for the space of the basket that will be used to pull the miners to safety, leaving little margin for error.

Throughout the day convoys of trucks arrived with the massive machinery that will be used to drill the hole to the miners. Each machine was met by a chorus of cheers, whistles and screams of "fuerza mineros" ["strength to the miners"].

Many family members spent yesterday writing letters to the men and settling into a new rhythm of cautious optimism.

"At first this was a nightmare, but slowly it has transformed into a dream filled with hope," said Carolina Lobos, the daughter of Franklin Lobos, one of the trapped miners, and a former star striker in Chilean football.

"I am so proud of my father for all the strength he has shown."

Optimism was running high as family members mapped out plans to celebrate the eventual return of their loved ones.

"The days are not so long now that we know they are alive. We are tranquil," said Ines Alfaro, as she swept the dirt floor around her campsite.

"I am going to grab him, kiss him and fill him with love," she said of her nephew Carlos Alfaro, 26.

Alfaro had settled into her small blue tent, surrounded by mountains of rocks hauled from the now infamous San José mine. "I am here for as long as it takes," she said.


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