Rescuing Chilean miners an unprecedented challenge

THE effort to save 33 men trapped deep in a Chilean mine was an unprecedented challenge, experts said yesterday.

It means months of drilling, then a harrowing three-hour trip in a cage up a narrow hole carved through solid rock.

If all of that is successful, the freed men will emerge from the earth and “feel born again”, said an American miner who was part of a group dramatically rescued in 2002 with similar techniques. But that rescue pulled men from a spot only one-tenth as deep.

“They’re facing the most unusual rescue that has ever been dealt with,” said Dave Feickert, director of KiaOra, a mine safety consulting firm in New Zealand that has worked to improve China’s dangerous mines.

“Every one of these rescues presents challenging issues. But this one is unique.”

First, engineers must use a 31-ton drill to create a “pilot” hole from the floor of the Atacama Desert down 2,200 feet to the area in the San Jose mine where the men wait.

Then the drill must be fitted with a larger bit to carve out a rescue chimney that will be about 26 inches wide – a task that means guiding the drill through solid rock while keeping the drill rod from snapping or getting bogged down as it nears its target.

Finally, the men must be brought up one at a time inside a specially built cage – a trip that will take three hours each. Just hauling the men up will itself take more than four days – if there are no problems.

“Nothing of this magnitude has happened before; it’s absolutely unheard of,” said Alex Gryska, a mine rescue manager with the Canadian government.

Gryska said he was confident Chile’s state-run Codelco mining company, with its vast expertise in the world’s top copper-producing nation, would successfully drill the hole out. But he said he was worried about the three to four months officials say it will take to do so – and the key role the miners themselves will play in their own rescue.

Picture shows the men trapped in the underground chamber, as seen on video footage broadcast on Chilean TV


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