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Astronaut Jerry Linenger can relate to trapped Chilean miners' state

Jerry Linenger is one of the few people on Earth who can say authoritatively what it will be like for 33 miners to wait until Christmas for rescue from a collapsed gold and copper mine in Chile.

They're trapped below 2,300 feet of solid rock. It could take four months or more to dig them out. No trapped miner has ever survived that long.

Linenger was the only American astronaut aboard the Russian-built space station Mir in 1997 when it caught fire, lost its oxygen generator and had trouble with its motion-control system. He knew his ride home was four months away.

"I was cut off from mankind," he said Wednesday from his home in Michigan. "The miners are cut off the same way."

Because of that, the Chilean government said it will reach out to NASA for advice on how to help the miners survive. The Chileans are also seeking help from their own submarine corps. Deep space and the deep sea offer the only comparisons to the miners' plight.

"We have no experience like this to fall back on," said Carol Raulston, vice president of communications for the National Mining Association in Washington, D.C. "We can't point to any mining situation with people trapped that long."

On Wednesday at Our Coal Miners Cafe in Jennerstown, Pa., miners and their loved ones followed the Chilean ordeal closely by television. In 2002, nine of their own were trapped in a flooded mine for three days. For the families above, it felt like an eternity. A four-month rescue seems unimaginable to them. "It's just devastating," said Mary Pugh, whose son, Robert, was among the trapped miners. "All we can do is pray."

But Linenger said his experience aboard the Mir offers some hope.

The fire in the 11-year-old space station blocked access to one of the two Soyuz capsules that were the crew's only means of escape. Each capsule could hold three people, and there were six crew members: four Russians, one German and Linenger.

Fighting the fire was the crisis that brought them together, Linenger said. He came to respect the cosmonauts for their training and their bravery.

"It was life-and-death. After that, I knew we could get through anything."

The Chilean miners appear to be pulling together like the Mir crew did. Their success in finding water and rationing food shows that, he said. When rescuers were able to lower food, medicine and a phone after 17 days, the miners sang the Chilean anthem together.

They've been told some will have to lose weight. They'll have to be just 35 inches around the waist 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, including exercise.

"We're working to determine a secure area where the miners can manage things. The space they're in actually has about two kilometers (1.2 miles) 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, and so is having fun. 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."

The miners have not been told how long they'll have to wait for rescue. Former astronaut Linenger said that will be their biggest test of resiliency.

Knowing it would be four months before a shuttle arrived to take him home, "I can't tell you how isolated I felt. I had to tell myself, 'I'll get through the next day. I'll make it to the end point.' "

He said the miners must be told the best- and worst-case scenarios.

"The news will be hugely disappointing for them, but they can take it, they can come out of a funk like that — if it's just once. What you don't want to do is give them a date, then give them another date later. You don't want to over-promise."

His worst disappointment was a promise that he could speak to his wife.

They had a year-old son. She was pregnant. He was so afraid he'd forget to ask about the pregnancy and how his son was doing that he wrote down his questions in advance.

When he got on the line, all he could hear was static. An antenna had broken. "My spirits sank. I scraped bottom."

Afterward, he swore off any more expectations.

Astronauts and miners have similar coping skills, he said. "We understand our environments. There are no claustrophobes in space or in the mines.

"And we're all human beings. We're descendants of cavemen. We can survive."

When Linenger finally returned to Earth, his second son was born two weeks later.

This story was supplemented by the Associated Press.

Astronaut Jerry Linenger can relate to trapped Chilean miners' state 08/25/10 [Last modified: Thursday, August 26, 2010 7:16am]
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