COPIAPO, Chile – Just 35 inches (90 centimeters) around the waist — that's how skinny Chile's 33 trapped miners have been told they need to be to squeeze through the escape tunnel, the health minister said Wednesday.
Dr. Jaime Manalich said rescuers are applying a holistic plan to support the miners' well-being during the months it may take to carve out the tunnel, including exercise and other 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 actually has about two kilometers 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."
Establishing a daily and nightly routine is important, the minister said, adding that having fun also will be critical. The rescue team is creating an entertainment program "that includes singing, games of movement, playing cards. We want them to record songs, to make videos, to create works of theater for the family."
What the team doesn't want them to know is that they may be stuck below for up to four months. While the miners have a general idea that their rescue will take time, they haven't been given the details, Interior Minister Rodrigo Hinzpeter said Wednesday.
"I hope that nobody commits the imprudence of telling them something like this. We have asked the families to be careful in the letters they write," Hinzpeter said. "It's going to be very hard. We're going to have to give them a great deal of attention, care and psychological support."
The escape tunnel will be about 26 inches (66 centimeters) wide — the diameter of a typical bike tire — and stretch for more than 2,200 feet (688 meters) 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.
Most Americans couldn't meet the 35-inch (90-centimeter) limit — the average U.S. adult waistline is 39.7 inches (101 centimeters) for men and 37 inches (94 centimeters) for women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The miners are believed to have lost significant weight during the 17 days it took for the outside world to re-establish contact.
They were getting more nutritious food Wednesday in the form of cans of a milk-like drink that has been enriched with calories and protein, and tastes like chocolate with vanilla. But it will be days before their digestive systems can handle solid food.
Even before rescuers contacted the men, the self-imposed rations were meager: Two spoonfuls of tuna, a sip of milk, a bite of cracker and a morsel of peach every other day, enabling all 33 to stay alive on just two days' worth of emergency rations.
The rescue team isn't ready to let families talk directly with the miners yet, but Chilean President Sebastian Pinera asked their leader Luis Urzua in a call Tuesday what they needed.
"That you rescue us as quickly as possible, and that you don't abandon us," Urzua responded. "Don't leave us alone ... we hope that all of Chile shows its strength to help us get out of this hell."
"You will not be left alone, you have not been alone. The government is with you all, the entire country is with you all," Pinera said.
Urzua, 54, also described how the miners felt immediately after the mine's main shaft collapsed on August 5.
"It was frightening. We felt like the mountain was coming down on us, without knowing what happened. Thanks to God, we still hadn't gathered together to go out to have lunch. ... At 20 minutes before 2 (their usual lunch hour), the mountain came down on top of us."
"For about four or five hours, we couldn't see a thing. After that we saw that we were trapped by an enormous rock that filled the entire passage of the tunnel."
Jorge Barahona isn't surprised that his cousin Urzua has led the men through such a precarious situation.
"All the guys with him have an experience of surviving, their work is survival," said Barahona, standing around a campfire Wednesday, warming his hands as the sun peeked over the mountains.
Urzua's father was killed when the foreman was just a teenager, and he immediately took charge of his younger brothers and sisters, developing his leadership skills early in life, his cousin said.
"He's the leader of everything down there," said Barahona, who doubts any of the miners would question his direction. "They know before something like this happens that there is somebody who will always lead."
The miners were plunged into darkness in the lower reaches of the gold and copper mine, which runs like a corkscrew for more than 4 miles (7 kilometers) under a barren mountain in northern Chile's Atacama Desert. They gained contact with the outside world Sunday when rescuers drilled a narrow bore-hole down to their living-room-sized shelter after seven failed attempts.
Three 6-inch-wide (15-centimeter) shafts are serving as the miners' "umbilical cords" — one for supplies, another for communications and a third to guarantee their air supply.
Some family members filed suit Wednesday against the mine's owner, Compania Minera San Esteban. Attorney Remberto Valdes, representing the miner Raul Bustos, accused the company of fraud and serious injury based on the lack of safety measures like the escape tunnel that the state-owned Codelco copper company is now preparing to dig. Four municipal governments in the area are preparing a similar claim.
On Aug. 31, the men will have been trapped underground longer than any other miners in history. Last year, three miners survived 25 days trapped in a flooded mine in southern China. Few other rescues have taken more than two weeks.
Associated Press writers Federico Quilodran in Copiapo, Seth Borenstein in Washington, D.C., and Michael Warren in Buenos Aires, Argentina, contributed to this report.