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Depression and unpaid wages add to woes of trapped miners in Chile

There isn't yet a tunnel, let alone light at the end of it, but rescue workers in northern Chile have at last begun drilling the hole they hope will eventually provide an escape route for 33 miners who have been trapped half a mile beneath the surface for almost four weeks.

A 31-tonne excavator made a shallow "test hole" yesterday in some of the solid rock it must bore through to reach the workers, who survived 17 days without contact from the outside world but have now received supplies of food, water, clothing and medicine.

It will take at least a week for the initial pilot hole to be drilled to the chamber where the men are trapped. After that, larger drill bits will be installed to gradually widen the tunnel until it is roughly the size of a bicycle wheel, at which point the evacuation process can commence.

The men will be pulled to the surface, one by one, in a small escape pod, which will take roughly an hour to reach ground level. They have been told that it could take until Christmas for them to be freed, though some experts said yesterday that if there are no complications it could in theory be over in two months.

Either way, the 33 miners have now been trapped underground in the hot and damp chamber longer than anyone in the history of their profession. Five of the group are said to be suffering from depression, although they have been sent pharmaceuticals and allowed brief conversations with their families to help cheer them up.

Adding to their woes are growing concerns about the men's livelihoods once they do return to the surface. San Esteban, the small company which operates the gold and silver mine, says it has no money to continue paying their wages, let alone cope with the lawsuits that will inevitably arise from the ordeal. It is not even participating in the rescue, which is being run by Codelco, a state-run mining firm.

Union leaders have called on the government to pay compensation to the men, together with roughly 270 other employees of San Esteban who are now out of work. They blame the accident on poor regulation, pointing out that the mine was allowed to remain open despite repeated safety violations which led to the death of a miner in 2007.

"We want the government to pay our salaries in full until our comrades are freed and then pay our severances," said the union leader Evelyn Olmos. The Mining minister, Laurence Golborne, said however that labour laws forbade his administration from making such payments, and that the issue would have to be worked out in Chilean courts.

It is yet another worry for families of the trapped men, who are able to communicate with their loved ones through written notes and occasional telephone conversations which are carried out via three six-inch wide communication tubes which have been drilled into the area where they are trapped.

When the Strata excavator, which has been imported from Australia, completes its initial pilot hole, the men will have to begin assisting their own rescue. An estimated 4,000 tonnes of debris will fall into a mine shaft near their chamber, and they will have to help clear it from the mouth of the tunnel.

"The thing that concerns me is the welfare of the workers, their mental state. That will be real tough," said Alex Gryska, a mine rescue manager with the Canadian government. "From a health perspective, it's hot down there. They're talking about working 24/7 in 85 degrees for two months. Their mental state for that work will be critical."