Friday, August 27, 2010

Trapped Chilean Miners Struggle to Sleep

A half mile under the Chilean desert, 33 men are in the early stages of an ordeal no human should ever experience. They’re trapped together in a pitch-black 600-sq-ft mining chamber for at least the next several months.

Weeks ago, the men were presumed dead in a mining accident. Everything changed this week with the bombshell announcement by the President of Chile. Rescuers discovered a note tied to a rescue probe claiming each of the 33 miners survived the cave-in. They were confirmed alive a short time later when the rescue team made contact through a narrow ventilation pipe – a lifeline for food, water and communication.

The unsettling reality of the situation quickly overshadowed the initial celebration. The trapped miners face the next 4-5 months entombed in living hell.

Almost every aspect of the story is grim. The mental toll on the minors has to be unimaginable. The promise of rescue exists, but it’s not definite. Rescuers have no room for error as they dig a new tunnel system to reach the chamber. One mistake could extinguish any remaining hope.

There is always the possibility of violence. A single mental breakdown or hotheaded argument could escalate to a tragic outcome.

The miners’ day-to-day experience is equally as horrifying. The chamber is a stagnant 90°F. It’s boring. The only light comes from flashlights on the men’s helmets.

The miners’ don’t stand a chance at getting restful sleep. The human sleep-wake cycle is regulated by natural light. Circadian rhythms run wild in the absence of sunlight. It’s conceivable that every miner is operating on a different sleep cycle.

The impact on sleep is similar to what astronauts experience on long missions. Unlike astronauts, these men have no way to prepare or adapt to living without natural sunlight.

Similar to how astronauts use work such as experiments to cope with sleep deprivation, the workers are trying to stay busy in their waking hours. They’re spending their time doing menial work and playing cards and dominos.

The comfort issue is another sleep-killer for the miners. The men are crammed together in a small, hot space. Noise disturbances are constant. There are no beds, so the men sleep on the stone floor or makeshift cots made from rocks.

Fortunately, the miners appear to be in good spirits. A video message recorded on a micro-sized camcorder shows the group singing and cheering. Although some appear emaciated, officials are confident they the men can stay alive until rescuers reach them. That could happen as early as next month, or as long as December.

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