Drilling success may speed rescue
Miners may be out month earlier
COPIAPÓ, Chile — The families of 33 trapped miners were in high spirits yesterday after a surge in the drilling of escape tunnels raised hope that the men may be rescued from the San Jose mine sooner than previously expected.
Relatives smiled, hugged, and yelled, “Viva Chile!’’ as officials reported that one of the rescue drills made twice the progress yesterday that had been expected.
The officials promised the families that preparations for the rescue effort on the surface would be ready by Oct. 12 and said they are planning for the possibility the miners could be pulled up nearly a month ahead of the official schedule. But the officials also urged caution, warning that unforeseen problems could slow the work.
A siren sounded at 5 p.m. Tuesday in the camp where families have held vigil since a rock collapse blocked the mine’s exit shaft Aug. 5. At first, no one knew what it meant, just that it was good news.
Then, rescue workers came down to report that the Plan B drill had reached 984 feet deep, nearly halfway to its goal, after advancing 243 feet yesterday, more than twice as fast as expected.
At that pace, the drill could break through to the miners in about five more days, barring complications, and be reinforced with a metal sleeve even before Oct. 12.
We’re “happy for this depth they reached,’’ Alberto Segovia said. “We needed just this kind of attitude.’’ His brother Dario has been trapped in the gold and copper mine for 54 days.
Three drills are pounding through hard rock below the Atacama desert to reach the miners. The Plan B drill is a US-made T-130, operated in consultation with a team from Somerset, Pa., that had experience in the 2002 Quecreek mine disaster, where a similar tunnel was carved to pull out nine trapped coal miners.
Many observers had put their bets on a towering oil-industry drill called Plan C, with the power to rapidly carve a separate tunnel to a spot slightly less deep. Now it looks as if either drill might be the one to reach the miners first.
The government said the Plan A drill, a Strata 950 unit, reached 1,667 feet yesterday morning. Once it breaks through to 2,306 feet, the drill will need to start over, widening the hole to its final diameter of 28 inches so that the metal sleeve and escape capsule can pass through.
Above ground, the government is rushing to set up a field hospital and a huge stage where reporters can observe the rescue from a distance.
The first rescue capsule has arrived, but workers still need to attach it to a huge spool of steel cable. These and other tools will be ready in 15 days, Interior Ministry official Cristian Barra promised Tuesday.
Barra and the rescue operations chief, Andre Sougarret, stressed, however, that just because the tools will be ready does not mean that the rescue will happen so quickly.
There could be setbacks in the drilling, they warned, especially as the drills pass through collapsed sections of the mine or rock layers that are not well mapped. Barra said they are sticking with the official date of early November for now.
If the Plan B drill maintains its current speed, President Sebastian Pinera may be able to keep his promise of hugging each surfacing miner and still leave for Europe on a previously scheduled trip Oct. 15-22.
But Sougarret also advised caution, saying he expects the unexpected when it comes to hard-rock drilling.