How the rescue of 33 Chilean miners almost didn't happen

COPIAPO, Chile — Mauricio Pino was working late that night in early August when he got the phone call: "There's been an accident at the San Jose mine."

The boyish-looking Chilean engineer remembers rushing to the mine in the bitter cold of the Southern Hemisphere winter. When he got there, dust was still pouring from the entrance to the shaft and he didn't know whether the 33 miners had survived the 600,000-ton cave-in nearly half a mile below ground.

Pino remembers the early, gloomy days of the search, when initial drilling failed to find any trace of the men. Four psychics the government had hired to help find them said, "Forget it, they're all dead."

Two weeks later, with the men still missing, Pino remembers the mood among rescuers being so bleak that one of the contingencies being drawn up had them "building a white cross over the mine and walking away."

But Pino, who, as the Mining Ministry's regional director, has been point man for the rescue since Day 1, was determined to find the men.

It took what the burly 40-year-old calls "a miracle."

On the night of Aug. 22, a full 17 days after the mine collapse, a drill probe reached a chamber that the men had used as a lunchroom. Pino listened with a stethoscope and heard rhythmic hammering.

"I said to myself, 'That's not falling rock,' " Pino said.

When the probe was raised, there was a letter glued to the bottom of the drill bit. It read: "We're fine in the refuge, the 33."

In a video officials made of that moment, Pino can be seen in his blue jacket and hard hat, kneeling down to pray. The desperation and the sleepless nights were over; the rescue, to his mind, now was just a matter of time.

"Until that moment, we had had nothing but disappointments and the outlook was only getting worse," Pino said.

"We had found the needle in the haystack."

Mining is Chile's most important economic activity. Atacama state in northern Chile, where the San Jose mine is located, expects to receive $20 billion in mining investment in coming years, much of it from resource-hungry China.

"The government wants these projects to materialize because it needs the jobs, the investment and the tax revenue," said Pino, who normally spends his time promoting new projects in the region to investors, issuing permits to mining firms and monitoring conditions at the mines. "It's my function to make sure they happen."

But mining is also a dangerous business, and accidents are a fact of life. In Chile, 36 miners have been killed so far this year, 10 of them in Pino's region.

"We try to minimize them with training and investment, but in mining there are constant risks. As we say in the industry, there are only two types of mining accidents: serious and fatal," Pino said. "But the miners and the mining companies know it and they accept them."

The refinement of safety procedures has made entrapments like that of the San Jose mine relatively rare. Most miners are killed in vehicle crashes or accidents involving explosives. Just last month, a truck transporting explosives in northern Chile exploded, killing four people.

Although the root causes of the Aug. 5 disaster at the San Jose mine are under investigation, Pino and others believe it was partially the result of a seismic event that caused an enormous column of earth 165 yards tall and 75 yards wide to collapse.

The first rescue option was to try to clear the 5-mile-long tunnel down to where the miners were believed to be, a series of descending zigzags.

But that option was discarded when Pino and others found out that at least one mile of the tunnel was clogged with debris and clearing it could take a year. Explosives that would have speeded the process were ruled out because the earth was still shaking, Pino said.

The second possibility was to send rescuers down to clear a path through the "chimneys," the series of 6-foot-square ventilation ducts that are supposed to include stairways to give miners an escape hatch. When rescuers saw that the mine's owners apparently had not built the required stairways and that at several points they were blocked by landslides, that option was crossed off as well.

That left trying to drill down to where the miners were, first with small-bore sounding holes, followed by a larger-diameter shaft through which an escape capsule could be lowered. Such a capsule, however, had never been used at the depth the miners were believed to be.

Pino remembers: "I said to the president during one of his four trips to the mine: 'It's the only feasible option.'"

But first, the miners had to be found.

Two weeks into the rescue mission, Pino's personal life was fraying.

His 10-year old daughter, Daniela, was seriously hurt in a car accident and he had been told she required reconstructive facial surgery. He couldn't stop thinking about her, but he had to focus on saving "Los 33."

His marriage was feeling the strain too. As he spent every waking hour directing the rescue, he had to indefinitely postpone the renewal of his marriage vows to his wife, Lilian, that had been scheduled for Aug. 28.

Pino, who had been appointed to the district mining director job in April after 16 years as an engineer at the Pucobre mining firm, said: "Never in my strangest dreams did I think I would be consumed for two months in a problem like this."

In his rare down time, Pino said he likes to fish or spend time at the nearby beach at Bahia Inglesa. But he made it clear that mining is his life:

"In retrospect, I wouldn't have taken any other course in life."

Pino saw one bright spot in the increasingly desperate search: Chances were good that if the men had survived the landslide they were alive, because the refuge had recently been stocked with water and cans of tuna and salmon. So drillers targeted the refuge, a workshop and a section of tunnel.

And so on Aug. 9, rescuers began drilling the first of 16 probes. In a remarkable show of solidarity, the drilling was undertaken with resources and rigs donated by the largest mining companies working in the country: Codelco, Anglo-American, BHP Billiton, Freeport McMoRan and others.

The initial probes for signs of life met only with disappointment. Although such drills had been used at these depths in getting core samples for mineral analysis, never before had the managers of the rigs tried to hit a target as small as the 600-square-foot refuge. It didn't help that blueprints provided by the mine owners were frequently inaccurate.

The rescuers literally were groping their way in the dark. At one point they feared that a drill rig that used water to cool the drill bit was "drowning the miners."

Directing the probe was made difficult when the drilling pipe would invariably deviate off course as it dug down, a result of torque and gravity.

"It was like trying to turn on a light switch with a mile-long fishing pole," Pino said.

But an engineer with Anglo-American solved the problem by acquiring a computerized drill head that compensated for the bending.

The morning of Aug. 22 brought a report of an unusual "vibration" on the end of the drill pipe that might be the miners sending signals.

The men had been found.

After contact was made, the government hired three competing drill teams in a race to be first to bore down with a wider-diameter hole big enough to accommodate the metal rescue capsule dubbed the Phoenix.

The winner was a company called Geotec that had a U.S.-made drill normally used for driving piles for bridges and high-rises. Early Saturday, the team punched through the rock ceiling of a tunnel near the miners' workroom, to jubilation of the miners, their family members — and the rescue team.

"We achieved two important things through this ordeal. The miners maintained discipline, strength and hope," Pino said. "But those of us outside also have accomplished something very difficult."

As he made the final preparations to pull the men up to the daylight they haven't seen for nearly 10 weeks, Pino meditated on how the rescue had changed him.

"Personally, I think it's making me much stronger — and more experienced — and more confident. We took difficult decisions that turned out to be the correct ones."

As he waited for the big moment, he smiled and said he knew what his reaction would be.

"When the rescue happens," he said, "I'll be shouting along with everyone else."

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