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Rescuing the Miners

  • By David Levin
  • Posted 10.27.10
  • NOVA

When 33 Chilean miners were trapped in a cave-in this August, rescuers had to dig through more than 2,000 feet of solid rock to free them. It was the deepest rescue ever attempted, and it would have to be done fast. But how? To find out, we talked to Greg Hall, owner of Drillers Supply International, a small Texas company that helped drill the rescue shaft in a record 33 days.

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Hear from Greg Hall, the drilling expert whose team reached 33 Chilean miners trapped more than 2,000 feet underground.

Transcript

Rescuing the Miners

Posted October 27, 2010

DAVID LEVIN: You're listening to a NOVA podcast. I'm David Levin.

When 33 Chilean miners were trapped in a cave-in this August, rescuers had to dig through more than 2,000 feet of solid rock to free them. It was the deepest rescue ever attempted, and it would have to be done fast. But how? Greg Hall is owner of Drillers Supply International, a small Texas company that helped drill the rescue shaft in a record 33 days.

Greg, thanks for joining me.

GREG HALL: You're welcome. My pleasure.

DAVID LEVIN: So, I'm just wondering—what was going through your head when you first heard about the mine collapse?

GREG HALL: Well, when I first heard about the mine collapse, I just was hoping that they would be able to find some way to get down to them quickly. But that wasn't the case. After about a week to 10 days, we felt that we were drilling a recovery operation and not a rescue operation due to the amount of food and water that the miners should have had. On day 17, one of the rigs my technicians were working on found a void, which was good, and my technician called me and said, "Greg, we think we hear pounding on the drill pipe." And that's when I thought, "Well, maybe one or two of them survived." We tripped out the drill pipe, and in between our hammer and bit was that famous note that the president waved around, saying "all 33 of us are alive in the refuge."

DAVID LEVIN: That must have been amazing.

GREG HALL: That was amazing. That was just such a miracle. Again, we were hoping one or two of them were alive. But to find out that all 33 men were alive was amazing.

DAVID LEVIN: So after you drilled the pilot hole that actually found the miners, did you think you'd be able to widen it enough to get them out in time?

GREG HALL: I've talked to a lot of my peers, and they say that this was the hardest technical hole ever heard of. About impossible. Problem was, when the pilot hole was drilled, it was drilled with our four-and-a-half-inch pipe and our five-inch hammers. The ground was so hard, it actually caused the bit to move. It pushed it around some of the hard formations. So we had three large curves that we had to go through to follow that pilot hole. That's pretty much deemed impossible at the diameter of the 28, 26-inch that we were going to drill. In a normal situation, we would abandon that hole and drill another one. But we couldn't, because it was very hard to hit that little area we had tried to hit, and we knew if we followed that pilot hole, we would get to the miners. So we had to follow that.

DAVID LEVIN: What were the chances you wouldn't make it? Had to be overwhelming.

GREG HALL: They were very, very large. We had some severe, severe times where we were actually stuck. We actually did some things to the rig which took it 20 percent over its limit. But we needed every single bit of that horsepower. But we just decided that we didn't want to let emotions get in our way because it was such hard technical drilling, and we actually just concentrated on drilling meter by meter. And we were just so focused on that, we didn't sleep very much, we didn't eat very much, but we just knew every meter that we went down was a meter closer. And that's all we worried about was the next meter, not worrying about, "Could we actually get there?"

DAVID LEVIN: So what was the hardest part of the whole operation for you?

GREG HALL: Trying to keep the emotions out of it. We were in very much constant conversations with the miners on video link, and of course, they were very interested in how fast we would get them out. We couldn't help but see the camp of all the families there on vigil. And it took a really serious effort for, I know, me and my guys to just try to detach ourselves emotionally where we could just concentrate, because the technological challenges were so much, we really couldn't be distracted by emotion. That was a very hard line to walk.

DAVID LEVIN: So when you finally punched through, what was it like for you?

GREG HALL: You know, that hole fought us to the very end. When it was all said and done, obviously, if you've seen the video, that's my technical manager spraying champagne on everybody, and I'm the guy about two foot taller than everybody else, jumping up and down. It was a great sense of relief, but again, tempered with the fact that we still had to get the 33 out. And so, really, until that 33rd person came out, I think we all kind of had our game face on.

DAVID LEVIN: Were you there when the first person was rescued?

GREG HALL: I was not. The government was kind enough to invite us to stay, but I made the decision that this was a Chilean thing, and so we all came home and watched it on TV.

DAVID LEVIN: That must have been a pretty incredible experience.

GREG HALL: It was an incredible experience. And when the 33rd came up, it was just a sense of relief, and of thankfulness and gratefulness, and a little bit of disbelief, because we'd been working on it so hard for so long, and it was funny to be able to go to sleep and not worry about the drill rig and also not be worrying about the miners. And that took a couple of days really, where, you know [LAUGHS] waking up at night, like—where are we, you know, what's been—to try to decompress a little bit.

DAVID LEVIN: Well, Greg, thank you so much for speaking with me.

GREG HALL: All right, well, I really appreciate it.

DAVID LEVIN: My pleasure. And congratulations.

GREG HALL: Thank you, sir.

Credits

Audio

Produced by
David Levin

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(Plan B drill)
© NOVA/WGBH Educational Foundation

Related Links

  • Emergency Mine Rescue

    Engineers and NASA scientists aid an all-out effort to save 33 Chilean miners trapped nearly half a mile underground.

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