By Maria Alcon, NBC News Producer
COPIAPO, Chile – During the morning drive to the San Jose Mine in Copiapo, Chile, it feels like you are driving on the moon.
For 40 minutes there is nothing but sand dunes and rocks all around you and a mist that makes for almost zero visibility. You can’t help but get the feeling you are driving to the end of the earth.
But you know you’re getting close when you pass two checkpoints to the mine. The spot where 33 miners are trapped deep below the earth’s surface is heavily guarded by police who only allow family members, press and those involved in the rescue effort.
Then, out of the rock, life suddenly takes form. “Camp Esperanza,” or “Camp Hope” as the families have coined it, is a beehive of family tents outside the mine.
There is one big communal tent for meals where the families can get food three times a day and snacks. Some journalists join in, too, since there is no place else to buy food within a 30-mile radius.
Dreaming about kisses and hugs
Lila Ramirez’s tent is the first one you see. She’s often sitting on a folding chair around a campfire surrounded by her grandchildren.
“I’m exhausted,” she says. Ramirez has been living in a tent for almost two months waiting for her husband, Mario Gomez, to emerge. At 63 years old, he is the oldest of the trapped miners.
“I dream about the kiss and embrace I am going to give him.” She says that’s what keeps her going.
She sits across from the brother of Luis Urzua, the miner’s foreman who has been hailed as a hero for organizing the other miners and ensuring their survival.
Of course, the relatives of the trapped miners who have been waiting to see their loved ones for nearly two months are all practically family now.
Elizabeth Segovia, sister of trapped miner Dario Segovia, was working hard to get her fire going. She wanted to cook dinner for her family – some meat and corn.
“It keeps me busy and not thinking about it,” she said as she fanned the flames.
Maria Alcon/ NBC News
The lonely road to the San Jose Mine in Copiapo, Chile
‘A little happiness’
The conditions at the mine are no better than a rudimentary campsite. Two portable toilets service about 100 people on the camp.
The clearing of rock continues, so trucks loaded with rubble spread the dust throughout the camp and you feel it breathing in. Families wash their clothes in buckets and hang them on clotheslines near their tents. A few lucky journalists are living in campers, the ultimate luxury here.
There’s also a clown, Rolando Gonzales or “Rolly” as the children call him. He organizes face painting activities and games for the kids. “The little ones need a little happiness,” he said and if he can help he’ll do just that. When he’s not clowning around, he is a miner, too.
The police do their part as well, giving children motorcycle and horse rides to keep them occupied.
The kids could use the entertainment – there is really nothing else at the camp except a couple of toys their families brought with them.
Trapped Underground: Learn more about the Chilean miners who have been trapped underground since Aug. 5
Many of the families prefer a little more privacy, away from the constant onslaught of media, and have taken refuge at a camp up a hill, protected by police, where no journalist can enter. Every afternoon they get bused up to the entrance of the mine so they can talk to the miners via fiber link or send them letters.
“They only get a few minutes because too much contact can also be bad for the miners’ mental health,” said Alberto Iturra Benavides, the rescue effort’s lead psychiatrist, who is treating the families and the miners every day.
Iturra said these men have survived the worst – and now that they can hear the rescue efforts above, feel hopeful that the end of their subterranean prison is approaching.
“There are ups and downs,” he said. “Some are worried about their kids, others are just exhausted.” But he is in awe of these men who have survived one of the worst situations imaginable and have still remained optimistic.
“They are very organized, they seek positive solutions,” said Iturra. “I believe they are going to emerge changed men. Men who appreciate life much more – who appreciate food, water and human contact more than they ever did before.”
Natalie Morales/ NBC News
One way in, one way out: The small entrance to the San Jose Mine in Copiapo, Chile
Families will emerge changed too. Ramirez said she will never allow her husband to go into a mine again. That will not be a problem since the miners have been hailed as national heroes and have gotten thousands of job offers around the country already.
At the camp, there is optimism that the rescue is near. Mid-October is what the families say, not November as the government had earlier told the media.
So the families are waiting hopefully, alongside journalists, for word that soon “Los 33” or “the 33” will be brought to the surface alive and well.