Chilean officials broke the news to a desperate group of trapped miners that they could be stuck in their collapsed mine for months before being rescued.
"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.
He said the 33 men, trapped 700 meters (2,300 feet) below ground, took the information calmly, but he warned "a period of depression, anguish and severe malaise" could ensue.
|Relatives of the 33 miners trapped in the San Esteban gold and copper mine in Copiapo, 800 km north of Santiago, bid rescuers farwell as they leave with machinary that won't be used anymore|
Officials had been hiding the bleak information from the miners since they were discovered alive on Sunday in a shelter in the San Jose gold and copper mine more than two weeks after an August 5 collapse.
They feared the psychological impact it would have when the men contemplated the long ordeal ahead of them in a hot, dank shelter with their only lifeline a tiny hole to the surface providing sustenance, water and communication.
The news was delivered as the government prepared a special program to help the miners cope mentally and physically with their prolonged captivity.
The tunnel, which could take four months to excavate, would measure just 66 centimeters (26 inches) in diameter when it was complete -- roughly the size of a bicycle wheel.
Officials said they were careful in the way they presented the situation to the men, especially after they made a desperate plea late Tuesday for early rescue.
"We are waiting for all of Chile to do everything to get us out of this hell," group leader Luis Urzua told Chilean President Sebastian Pinera late Tuesday through an intercom cable dropped to them.
"Mr. President," he said, "we need you to be strong and to rescue us as soon as possible. Don't abandon us."
Pinera vowed: "You won't be left alone, nor have you been alone a single moment."
At the time he avoided mentioning engineers' estimates that a hydraulic bore about to be used to dig the escape shaft would need 120 days to complete the task.
The president later told reporters he was determined the men "will be with us for Christmas and New Year."
The men, though famished, were in good physical condition, having survived on meager rations and water trickling into their refuge before being found.
Manalich said the first stage of the preparation plan calls for the miners to receive "nutritional recuperation" and occupational therapy.
They had been sent chocolate- and raspberry-flavored milkshakes, which would be followed by solid food in around four days, when their metabolisms could cope, he said.
The miners are now getting four half-liter bottles of water and four boxes of crackers every half hour inside a 1.6 meter-by-12 centimeter (63 inches by five inches) metal cylinder, called a "dove," that is lowered and raised by rope through the bore hole, rescue workers said.
The US space agency NASA has said it was willing to advise on how to sustain the men, based on its long experience with keeping astronauts healthy during long, isolated missions.
Examinations of their urine, blood pressure and body temperatures would soon be carried out, and they had been told to split their living area -- which included a tunnel around 1.5 kilometers (one mile) long -- into three zones: one for sleeping, one for working, and one for bodily waste. Tiny lamps would illuminate the space.
"Then they will start a daily exercise routine," Manalich said.
The psychological aspect was being carefully looked at.
"The program includes singing, games involving movement, card games, pencils and anything that they can use," the minister said.