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Chilean hospital prepares for the arrival of 33 trapped miners

By Karl Penhaul
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24 hours in a Chilean mine
  • The 33 trapped men could be rescued in early November
  • The miners would first be assessed at a field hospital
  • A contingency plan is in place to rush the miners to the Copiapo Regional Hospital
  • Miners will be dissuaded from simply going home after rescue, the hospital director says

Copiapo, Chile (CNN) -- Military choppers are on standby to swoop into the heliport. Motorcycle police are on alert to escort a fleet of ambulances. And a throng of electric beds with crisp white sheets stand vacant and ready.

This is part of the contingency plan to rush 33 trapped miners from the spot where many hope they will be pulled out of the earth to a hospital in Copiapo, the nearest town to the collapsed San Jose gold and copper mine.

"We've been ready since Day One of this disaster," said Hernan Rojas, director of Copiapo Regional Hospital. "We expected injured miners to start coming in soon after the collapse, but this has dragged out."

Government rescue coordinator Andre Sougarret said by the end of this week, he will commission the construction of three cage-like capsules that will haul the miners back to the surface.

The government forecasts a rescue in early November. However, speculation is growing that a rescue could come much sooner, as three drills work around the clock to punch a man-size shaft through half a mile of rock into the cavern where the 33 men have been holed up since the August 5 cave-in.

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Video: Chilean president visits San Jose mine

President Sebastian Pinera, during a visit to the mine Sunday, fueled anticipation when he told media, "We don't know when, but it will be much sooner than you expect."

At the publicly funded Copiapo Regional Hospital, Rojas is fine-tuning his emergency response teams.

"We will be ready from the moment they extract the miners," he said. "They will come out one-by-one, and we will get communication that the miners are on their way. At that stage, we activate our internal plan."

As he strolled around a recently completed "special care unit," Rojas described how the freed miners would first be examined at a field hospital set up at the mine.

"There's going to be a field hospital. I don't know exactly what functions it will have, but there will be triage system to identify the most complex cases," he said.

Once triage is complete, the plan calls for flying the men aboard military helicopters to a heliport at the Chilean Army's 23rd Infantry Regiment based in Copiapo. That flight could take 15 or 20 minutes.

The heliport is about 300 meters from the hospital. The journey through the streets is about 800 meters.

Rojas said police would seal the streets, and motorcycles would escort ambulances to the emergency department of the hospital.

"The alarm will be raised. The hospital goes on alert, and the patients will be brought in via the emergencies department, which is open 24 hours," Rojas said.

The hospital director said some of the miners might not need special monitoring. Such miners would be accommodated in wards on the second and fourth floors. But there is space for up to 10 of the men to be interned in the newly inaugurated special care unit -- a unit intended for closely monitoring patients except those with life-threatening conditions.

"Don't look at this as a bed -- consider it a patient unit," Rojas said proudly as he showed CNN around the special care unit Wednesday. Green lights blinked on a series of buttons on the foot of the bed, and instructions for lowering and raising appeared in three languages on the bed frame.

If any of the miners' lives appear to be in danger, they will be taken directly to the intensive care unit once extracted, Rojas said. So far there's no indication that will be necessary, but Rojas said his team is prepared with traumatologists, brain surgeons and ophthalmologists.

"People ask, 'They've been so long underground, could their eyesight be damaged?' I don't know the answer right now," Rojas said.

He said the core team in the 10-bed special care unit would consist of a staff nurse and three paramedics per shift plus a doctor making rounds. Specialists would visit the miners in that unit on an as-needed basis.

If any of the miners refuse hospital treatment in favor of simply trying to head home with their loved ones, they will be dissuaded, Rojas said.

"That will be the basic task of the frontline medical team up at the mine. The people from mental health and the psychologists will have to use their charm on the miners to persuade them to get checked over before they discharge them," Rojas said.

The special care unit at Copiapo Regional Hospital still smells of fresh green paint. White sheets are covered with rolls of clear plastic to stop dust settling. Heart monitors are off, and suction pumps and oxygen lines remain silent.

This ward has never been used before. It was completed two months before the San Jose mine caved in.

With their hospital located in the heart of one of Chile's major mining regions, staff members at the Copiapo facility have treated miners from accidents before. But none of the accidents have attracted this level of worldwide attention.

"We're used to treating the local people and not making much noise or fuss about it. But this is different," Rojas said.

As he showed off pristine white forms to record the miners' vital signs and other medical notes, Rojas fidgeted in his suit pockets.

"The only thing I'm still missing is the pen," he said.

And, of course, 33 would-be patients who remain trapped half a mile underground.