Shining Stars of the Chilean Miners’ Rescue

Jeff Hart, left, and Matt Staffel embrace Elizabeth Segovia, sister of trapped miner Dario Segovia Rojo at the San Jose mine.

An email arrived from an American friend asking if I knew who the driller was who broke through to the miners. He went on, “They seemed to forget that story on the nightly news the last couple of days when the president of Chile is saying how great Chile is and what they have accomplished… Sometimes it ticks me off that we only get bad press, but when things turn to sh*t in this world, who’s phone rings?”

He had a point about the bad press. There was so much of it after the BP oil spill that I went in search of more information about the driller in question. And my interest was piqued by a story that hadn’t emerged during the reality TV-like coverage of the rescue saga. Dramas, as we see in the movies, allow many stars to shine that might not otherwise get that chance. And this was true in this real life drama as well.

The first star I discovered was topographer, Macarena Valdes, a thirty-year-old woman in a profession dominated by men. She helped set the direction of the drilling rigs that sent probes deep into the rock to try to locate surviving miners. During the 17 days it took to find the miners alive, she put up with teasing and the Chilean miners’ superstition that having a woman there would bring bad luck.

But Ms. Valdes followed a hunch. She always shifted the angle of the drill about one degree lower than recommended by geologists to adjust for vibration in the drilling rig. Drilling to over 2000 feet, one degree could mean a difference of several feet. Ms. Valdes likened the difficulty of the task to “using a shotgun to hit a mosquito at 700 meters.” And it took over thirty probes before the miners’ note told them they were alive. “It was 75 percent engineering and 25 percent a miracle,” Ms. Valdes said. Perhaps her courage to follow a hunch will now become an omen of luck for the miners.

With drills working overtime to provide lifelines to keep the miners alive, experts were called in to monitor the miners’ health and well-being for what would surely be a lengthy rescue operation. Long tubes, or palomas (Spanish for carrier pigeons), stuffed with essentials and the latest technology to keep the men comfortable and connected with the rest of the world, went endlessly back and forth through these narrow holes. One even carried wigs – a bizarre request from Mario Sepúlveda Espina, the second miner pulled from the shaft who came bearing gifts of rock and ran around doing high fives. He wore one of the wigs in front of a video monitor, joking about what shampoo did to his hair.

Next came the tricky part of drilling a hole wide enough for the men to get through, and finding a way to pull them nearly half a mile (about 600 meters) to the surface.  Clinton Cragg, part of NASA’s four man team dispatched to Chile after a request for assistance, worked with Chilean Navy Cmdr. Renato Navarro, who directed the team of Chilean naval engineers charged with creating the rescue vehicle. After assessing the situation, Cragg returned to his office and enlisted the help of 20 NASA engineers to come up with a design. After three days they had compiled a list of 75 elements needed, including the wheels to prevent metal scraping on rock, an escape hatch, communication, and an oxygen tank.

The Chileans incorporated most of these elements into a final design based on modified versions of the Dahlbusch Bomb, a 1955 German designed capsule used in the 1963 Wunder von Lengede (Miracle of Lengede) mine rescue of 11 men. Then they set about building three rescue capsules while drilling began on the escape route for “Plan A”. South African construction giant Murray & Roberts had supplied a drilling rig, along with six engineers. The prediction was that it would probably take until Christmas to rescue the miners.

However on one of the billboards used during President Sebastian Pinera’s campaign earlier in the year, was the message “Small businesses, Big opportunities.” After reading about the driller who broke through, I discovered that his becoming a hero hinged on a small business making a big difference to the miners’ early rescue.

That small business was a specialist drilling firm called Center Rock Inc., situated in Berlin, Pennsylvania, and founded by Brandon Fisher when he was just twenty-six years old. Fisher was convinced he could do the job quicker with the low profile drill his company had developed. Its four air powered hammers could fracture rock faster than conventional rotary tools, making it ideal to use on the hard volcanic rock in the San Hose mine.

Fisher had used a similar drill head to rescue nine miners trapped for over 78 hours in Pennsylvania in 2002. But despite his experience, he couldn’t get anyone to listen to him. “To tell you the truth, I don’t think anyone had a whole lot of faith in us,” he said.

Valuable time was lost. It seemed that no one understood the technology. But Greg Hall did. The South American arm of his own small Texas firm, Drillers Supply International, was already involved in the rescue using one of his drills for the probes. It put him in a good position to convince the Chilean government and rescue co-ordinators that Fisher’s plan was a good one: to sacrifice one of the miners’ supply holes to guide Hall’s Schramm T130 drilling pipe (made by Pennsylvanian company, Schramm, Inc.), with Fisher’s air-powered drill heads, to punch a 12 inch hole through 2,050 feet of granite, and then widen it to 26 inches to accommodate the rescue capsule. Using this plan, Fisher estimated that the miners could be out before November.

When the rescue co-ordinators finally gave the plan the go-ahead, the call went out for Jeff Hart (who was drilling wells for American troops in Afghanistan) to lead the drill team. He had the reputation for being the “best in the world” at drilling large holes with the T130 drill.

This then, became “Plan B”. But just in case it didn’t work, “Plan C” was on the way. A convoy of forty trucks was bringing a massive Canadian built oil drilling rig that could drill a wide enough escape shaft in a single pass without needing to drill a pilot hole.

But Fisher believed in his drills so much that he delivered them personally and stayed at the site for the entire drilling operation, which began on September 05. It was tough going. A steel roofing bolt heavily damaged the drill hammers part way through drilling the 12 inch hole. Drilling stopped for four days to remove pieces with powerful magnets. Fisher’s employees worked around the clock back home to manufacture and ship replacement parts. Work that normally took two weeks to complete was finished in a couple of days, Fisher said. Although the drill hammers could cut through 40 meters (131 feet) of rock a day, Fisher gave his workers full credit for the speed at which “Plan B” progressed.

And this was the strong foundation upon which lead driller, Jeff Hart, was able to stand tall. Like a sailor at the helm of a yacht who feels through his hands the right pressure to apply to keep the yacht on course, Jeff felt the drill’s vibrations through his feet, enabling him to guide it through hard rock and broken sections that tried to pull the drill off course. This is a special talent, for what slowed the rigs down on Plans A and B was that they kept going off course. True to his name, Jeff Hart also had the heart and a strong will to break through to the miners because, as he said, “There is nothing more important than saving, possibly saving 33 lives.”

It was tense in the “Plan B” camp the day before they broke through. Hart admitted that he was nervous. “I didn’t want anything to go wrong,” he said. He wasn’t the only one. Anxiously waiting families were disappointed when drilling stopped to change to smaller drill bits to give Hart greater control over the drill. His focus was on risk reduction rather than racing ahead to get through to the miners, conscious that the walls could collapse around them when the drill broke through. Thus began a 10-hour operation to remove the drilling pipes from the hole and then feed them back down.

Greg Hall was also nervous watching his drill tower shudder during the operation. He told a television news reporter that it wasn’t a good sign and began to fear that Plan B might fail if they didn’t get the pipes down the hole again, which is how they can ‘lose’ a hole.

But Jeff Hart managed the feed and resumed drilling late at night while the miners’ families kept a midnight vigil with prayer, song and contemplation. Finally at 8:02 the following morning, Hart felt the drill break through.

For Hart and his team, 33 gruelling days were over. Quietly spoken and unassuming, the man who seemed more comfortable behind the scenes than in the spotlight said, “You put an overwhelming stress on yourself because there are lives at stake.” Not only was it hard to stay on course, it was hard on the drill bits, he said. “We fought forever it seemed like, trying to get this hole down. And it fought back.”

But if Greg Hall hadn’t taken Fisher’s ideas seriously and convince the rescue operation’s manager to give Fisher’s drill bits a go, Jeff Hart would not have been the hero who punched through to the miners, winning the three-way race. And “little” would not have become “big”.

It is interesting how things turn out. One choice…one decision, can change the whole course of events – regardless of the expertise and ingenuity offered in such a rescue bid. Hopes were pinned on “big” – Plan C’s massive Canadian rig – to break through to the men first. But as one of Center Rock’s employees, Tom Foy said, “We proved that Center Rock is a little company, but they do big things.” Foy, incidentally, was one of the miners Fisher helped to rescue from the collapsed Pennsylvanian mine.

From this it is plain to see there are many heroes. Though Hart was the lead driller, a cast of hundreds supported him and the whole rescue operation. Matt Staffel, who had also been drilling water wells in Afghanistan, worked on the drill with Hart, along with Doug Reeves and Jorge Herrera, who told his wife that his knees wobbled when he arrived at the mine. It was a huge team effort with a very long list of credits.

But of all the stories I read that came out of this remarkable rescue, Hart’s and Fisher’s appeal to me the most because they turned “little” into “big”. And what is even more impressive to me is that they didn’t hang around like glamorous movie stars on the ‘red carpet’ of media attention. Brandon Fisher and his team returned home to watch the rest of the rescue on television. And while Hart told a TV reporter he felt “on top of the world” after he broke through, he returned with his team to Santiago to also watch the rescue mission from afar. Simply, he wanted this to become the miners’ and their families’ story.

However, if we must have just one star, to me it is Brandon Fisher, who so believed he could speed up the rescue with his drill bits that ‘Plan B’s escape route reached the miners in just thirty-three days. The motto on his Center Rock Inc. website is: Drill Faster. Run Harder. Work Smarter. For a man who didn’t finish college, he certainly showed how his love for what he does won a precious early release for the miners trapped in a mine that government officials allowed to re-open in 2008 – even though it still failed to meet safety regulations. As the miners found out, there was no ladder in the ventilation shaft they first turned to as their escape route. Perhaps a few mining companies could learn a thing or two from Brandon Fisher’s philosophy: get the job done as safely and efficiently as possible.

Footnote:

Greg Hall contacted me to ask if I would acknowledge that personnel from his company (Drillers Supply) were at the job site with Brandon Fisher and his crew the entire 33 days. He especially wants to acknowledge the important roles his General Manager, Mijali Proestakis and Technical Manager, Igor, played in the rescue.

An edited version of this post was published at Scoop.

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