"We were able to tell them ... they would not be rescued before the Fiestas Patrias [Chile's September 18 Independence Day celebrations], and that we hoped to get them out before Christmas," Health Minister Jaime Manalich said Wednesday, according to Agence France-Presse. He added that the men -- who are trapped 2,300 feet below the surface -- didn't panic after hearing the timetable, but warned that they could suffer "a period of depression, anguish and severe malaise" in the coming days.
Speaking to the men via a microphone lowered into the mine, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera promised to reunite the workers with their families. "Mr. President," said the miners' leader Luis Urzua, according to the BBC, "we need you to be strong and to rescue us as soon as possible. Don't abandon us."
"You will not be left alone, you have not been alone," Pinera responded. "The government is with you all, the entire country is with you all."
Officials held back the bleak news about the lengthy rescue process after the workers were discovered alive in a shelter on Sunday. That was 17 days after the collapse of the gold and copper mine's main access tunnel. They had worried that the information would shatter the men's morale. Until then, they had been surviving on a near-starvation diet.
In an effort to keep up the workers' psychological and physical health over the coming months, authorities are now developing a special exercise and recreation routine modeled on a NASA program. "This situation is very similar to that of the astronauts who are in space stations for months," Manalich said, according to The Santiago Times, adding that Chilean authorities had been in contact with the U.S. space agency.
The health minister said it was important that the men were stimulated every day, and not left to dwell on their grim situation. "The space they're in actually has about two kilometers [1.24 miles] of galleries to walk around in," Manalich explained, according to the BBC. "We're hoping 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."
And it's crucial that the miners are kept busy and physically active, as they will need to stay slim in order to squeeze through the 26-inch wide shaft -- roughly the size of a mountain bike wheel -- rescuers are currently drilling.
Emergency supplies are now regularly being funneled into the mine via a narrow borehole. The men have received chocolate- and raspberry-flavored milkshakes, intended to help prepare their fragile digestive systems for solid food, which will be sent down in three days.
The Santiago Times also reports that the men have started to receive cards from family members. A daughter of one of the miners wrote, "Hi Daddy, This is Romina. I want you to know that I am so happy that you are well. ... We were all so happy and so excited when the rescue worker came screaming that all 33 of you were alive. We planned a party for you and danced the cueca [Chile's national dance]. We all miss you and love you very much. We are waiting for you. We love you, Daddy."
Chilean officials, meanwhile, are considering bringing charges against the mine's operators, noted ABC News. Sen. Baldo Prokurica, a member of Chile's Senate mining commission, said that the two owners had flouted safety standards. He described the five miles of tunnels inside the main shaft as resembling "Swiss cheese." According to ABC, it's standard mining procedure to leave 40 feet of rock between a mine's various levels. But in the main shaft of the mine where the Aug. 5 collapse took place, the levels were separated by just 26 feet, making the mine extremely unstable. To make matters worse, the mine is located on a geological fault, making earthquakes a constant danger.
The mine's owner, Compania Minera San Esteban Primera, has said the mine was safe.