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How “Small” Became “Big” in Chilean Miners’ Rescue

How “Small” Became “Big” in Chilean Miners’ Rescue

By Juliet Bonnay

“Small businesses, Big opportunities” was the message on one of Mr. Sebastian Pinera’s billboards during his presidential campaign in Chile earlier this year. Never would he have dreamed that an unsafe San Hose mine would give a small American business a ‘Big opportunity’ to play a pivotal role in the early rescue of miners trapped inside it by a landslide.

That small business is a specialist drilling firm – Center Rock Inc. in Berlin, Pennsylvania – and founded by Brandon Fisher when he was just twenty-six years old. When Fisher heard that it could take until Christmas to drill down to rescue the miners, he was convinced he could do the job much faster with the low profile drill his company had developed. Its four air-powered hammers within a rotating cylinder 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 drilling rigs 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 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 plan finally received the go-ahead, a call went out to 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. Backing him up were Matt Staffel (who had also been drilling water wells in Afghanistan), Doug Reeves and Jorge Herrera, who told his wife that his knees wobbled when he arrived at the mine.

It was a tricky operation. The task at hand was to drill in a “thread the needle” procedure by guiding the drill head at an angle of 82 degrees through a 5-inch-hole, with as little deviation as possible.

This then, became Plan B. But just in case it didn’t work, Plan C was on the way – a convoy of forty trucks 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. At the time, Plan A was making slow progress with a raise borer drilling rig provided by South African construction giant, Murray & Roberts.

But Fisher believed in his drill heads 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 boring the 12 inch hole. Drilling stopped for four days to remove the 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. He feared 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, Fisher, Hall and the team of skilled workers and experts supporting them, 33 gruelling days during which they lost a lot of sleep, were over. Quietly spoken and unassuming, Jeff hart, 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 convinced the rescue operation’s manager to give his drill bits a go, Jeff Hart would not have been the hero who punched through to the 33 miners in just 33 days, winning a three-way race good-heartedly spurred on by President Pinera. And “small” 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 miners first. But as one of Center Rock’s employees, Tom Foy (a miner Fisher helped to rescue from the collapsed Pennsylvanian mine) said, “We proved that Center Rock is a little company, but they do big things.”

ENDS

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