Chilean engineer recounts effort behind rescue mission
Trapped miners’ lives hinged on daring plans
SAN JOSE MINE, Chile — Three days after 33 men were sealed deep within a gold mine, Andre Sougarret was summoned by Chile’s president.
The Chilean leader got right to the point: The engineer would be in charge of digging them out.
Sougarret worried — no one knew if the miners were alive, and the pressure was on to reach them. He knew he would be blamed if the men were found dead “because we didn’t reach them or the work was too slow.’’
The mission was unprecedented. No one had ever drilled so far to reach trapped miners. No one knew where to find them.
From the first confusing days to this week’s glorious finale, the 46-year-old Sougarret was the man with the answers.
Sougarret’s management of the crisis was so successful that nearly all the rescued miners walked out of the hospital yesterday perfectly healthy. Two of the miners required more attention and were transferred to other hospitals.
In choosing the young Chilean mining expert, President Sebastian Pinera had turned to the man who ran the world’s most productive subterranean mine, El Teniente, for Chile’s state-owned Codelco copper company.
Sougarret flew immediately to the mine in Chile’s northern Atacama desert, and encountered a nest of confusion, with rescue workers, firefighters, police officers, volunteers, and relatives desperate for word.
Gently but firmly, Sougarret made his first move: ordering out the rescue workers until there was, in fact, someone to rescue. He asked for maps of the mine and assembled a team, starting with Rene Aguilar, the 35-year-old risk manager at El Teniente.
In the weeks that followed, the two men built an operation that grew to more than 300 people.
Among their first steps was to ride into the mine in a truck.
“We knew it collapsed. What does collapsed mean?’’ Sougarret said. “What we found was a block, a tombstone, like when you’re in an elevator and the doors open between floors.’’
The smooth, solid wall was part of a huge block of stone that cut off the shaft that corkscrews for more than 4 miles to a depth of 2,625 feet.
Drilling through would risk provoking another collapse, crushing anything below.
So, an entirely new shaft would have to be drilled to try to reach the men. And they needed to call in more expertise: the miners who had narrowly escaped being crushed in the Aug. 5 collapse.
The miners who surfaced before the cave-in described where the men would have been working: likely near a workshop and reinforced refuge where they normally gathered to be taken to the surface for their lunch break.
Sougarret aimed at the workshop 2,041 feet underground, and the refuge, at 2,100 feet
“We were learning as we were drilling. And the days were beginning to pass,’’ he said.
Then, on Aug. 19, came a crisis: The drill reached 700 meters (2,100 feet), and nothing. “It passed 710, passed 720, and we got to 770 and didn’t find anything.’’
The drill had veered off, passing so close to the refuge that the miners could hear and feel it.
Finally, on Aug. 22, came success: The drill broke through to the shaft about 150 feet from the miners’ refuge.
The rescue team pulled up the drill head and found a message tied in a plastic bag and pressed inside the thread of the drill: “We’re all OK in the refuge, the 33.’’
As soon as the miners were found alive, Sougarret mobilized three much more powerful drills, known as Plan A, Plan B and Plan C, each with different methods of pounding through the rock.
With three drills advancing toward the men, it was only a matter of time. Sougarret calculated the potential velocity of each drill and bet on three dates: Dec. 1 for Plan A to reach the refuge, Oct. 10 for Plan B to reach the workshop and Oct. 30 for the shaft in between.
At 8:05 a.m. on Oct. 9, Plan B broke through. He had been off by a single day.
It was still necessary to encase the top of the tunnel in steel pipes and test the escape capsule, but Sougarret was no longer nervous.
“This last stage for me was like butter,’’ he said with a smile.