As rescue drill arrives, men told how long they will have to wait

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The rescue team fighting to free 33 men who have been trapped in a Chilean mine since 5 August have told their charges that they are unlikely to be freed until Christmas.

The country's Health minister, Jaime Mañalich, broke the news to the miners just hours before the first sections of the enormous drill which will be used to free the men arrived on site. Officials had delayed telling them out of concern for their mental wellbeing.

The miners had hoped to be freed by 18 September, when Chile celebrates its Fiestas Patrias, its 200th anniversary of independence from the Spanish. The men are said to have received the revelation with the same stoicism that has already seen them survive one of the most remarkable mining disasters in modern memory.

Psychologists decided that they could hold off informing the group of the extent of the ordeal ahead no longer. "We were able to tell them... they would not be rescued before the Fiestas Patrias, and that we hoped to get them out before Christmas," Mr Mañalich told reporters.

Although they took the news calmly, Chile's health minister said the men could suffer "a period of depression, anguish and severe malaise" and that anti-depressants would be sent to them if needed. "We have to make sure the miners are physically and psychologically fit," he said. "If they lose their mental balance, it could create panic and violence down there, and that would be a huge catastrophe."

The Chilean authorities have asked Nasa to help them develop a series of physical and mental exercises which will help the men cope with the months ahead, as they await rescue in a stiflingly hot chamber 700 metres underground. A team of Chilean submarine commandos have been brought in to give advice about living in cramped conditions.

Although the men will not celebrate Fiestas Patrias above ground, they have asked for bottles of wine to be sent down for the big day.

Engineers yesterday began piecing together the 28-tonne drill which will be used to reach the miners. It has been sent over from a larger copper mine to the south of where the miners are trapped and will take days to assemble.

The mechanics of drilling through 700 metres of rock to reach the miners will require precision, patience and luck. A similar two-day operation was conducted eight years ago in Quecreek, Pennsylvania, to reach nine miners – but they were only trapped 73 metres underground.

The miners' families are growing increasingly angry as they demand answers to who was responsible for the disaster. Relatives of one of the miners filed a lawsuit yesterday against the owners of the mine and government inspectors. They accuse the owners of safety lapses and claim the government was negligent to reopen the mine after an accident forced its closure in 2008. The owners deny responsibility.