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Embassy News 2011

U.S. Firms Sprang into Action to Save Chilean Miners

August 4, 2011

By Andrzej Zwaniecki
Staff Writer (IIP)

Washington — On August 22, 2010, when 33 miners were found alive, trapped 700 meters below the surface by a major collapse in the San José mine in Chile, a thought flashed in Brandon Fisher’s mind: The drilling company he headed, Center Rock Inc., could help.

Meanwhile, the rescue operation headed by Chilean Minister of Mines Laurence Golborne began working on a plan to drill through solid rock to make a shaft large enough to pull the miners to the surface. Fisher and Center Rock’s distributor in Chile, Drillers Supply S.A., sent a message to the Chilean operation: With its technology, Center Rock could help cut drilling time by half.

Once the offer was accepted, Roberto Matus, deputy chief of mission at the Chilean Embassy in Washington, asked United Parcel Service Inc. (UPS), a package-delivery company with headquarters in Atlanta, to transport Center Rock drills from Berlin, Pennsylvania, to the San José mine near Copiapó. UPS did it, quickly and free. Fisher, along with his manager, Richard Soppe — both experienced drillers — flew to Chile to join the rescue operation.

Other American businesses already were present at the site. Zephyr Technology Corporation, a small firm based in Annapolis, Maryland, had sent a device that allowed rescuers to monitor the health of the stranded miners. Aramark Corporation, a large Philadelphia-based food and facility services company, was delivering hot meals to the miners underground. A NASA team — two physicians, Michael Duncan and J.D. Polk; a psychologist, Al Holland; and an engineer, Clint Cragg — was there to advise on issues concerning the miners’ health.

Codelco, a large Chilean mining corporation, was in charge of the rescue operation. It was splitting its efforts among three simultaneous but different strategies to gain access to the miners, each involving experts and equipment from different countries.

“Even though it seemed competitive, we were always able to work together, helping each other,” Fisher said. He and Soppe were part of what was called “Plan B,” based on the rig operated by Geotec Boyles Brothers S.A., a joint venture between a Chilean firm and Layne Christensen Company, a U.S. drilling firm.

Two weeks after their arrival, two experienced drillers from Layne Christensen, Jeff Hart and Matt Staffel, joined the Plan B team. They flew to the site in Chile directly from Afghanistan, where they had been drilling water wells for U.S. troops. Hart said that becoming part of the rescue operation was quite a different experience.

“You suddenly realize that there are 33 guys under the ground that need your help,” he said. “This put a lot of urgency and stress into the whole scenario.”

The goal of each plan — Plans A, B and C — was to drill a shaft large enough for a capsule that would be designed by the Chilean Navy to go down and up, bringing the miners one by one to the surface. When NASA’s Cragg returned to Washington, he quickly put together a team of about 20 engineers to speedily work out requirements for the capsule. The team recommended a few dozen design features. The Chilean authorities incorporated most of NASA’s suggestions into the final design.

“But make no mistake,” Cragg said, Chilean Navy engineers “really did the heavy lifting” because they designed and built the capsule.

On October 9, the Plan B team reached the trapped miners. Zephyr sent its engineer, Ben Morris, from Annapolis to the San José mine with additional equipment to allow doctors to collect medical data on each miner, who would now be hoisted in the capsule. The rescue operation itself started three days later. Miners were brought to the surface one by one in the capsule.

For Morris, the emotions involved were close to his military experience in Iraq, where he had coordinated sniper missions and intelligence operations. In such a situation, “everybody has to know his or her part and do it correctly because people’s lives are at stake,” he said.

Matus, of the Chilean embassy, said he doesn’t know the exact number of U.S. businesses that participated directly in the rescue operation — probably between eight and 12, he estimated. But the number of companies, organizations and people who offered help or served as intermediaries or contact points was greater. And some firms donated their equipment and services. “I was impressed by [the] solidarity and engagement shown by different parts of U.S. society,” he said.

U.S. companies that participated in the operation at the San José mine are among sponsors of an exhibition on the survival of the miners and the rescue. The exhibition, which opens August 5 at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, will tell the stories of the rescued and the rescuers and feature the rescue capsule, new video footage from the rescue, mementos from the miners, and rock samples from the mine.

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(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP), U.S. Department of State.)