Three drills, two engineers and one unprecedented rescue operation

It was only a question of time, Chile's mining expert tells Vivian Sequera .

Three days after 33 men were sealed deep within a copper-gold mine, Andre Sougarret was summoned by Chile's President. The leader got right to the point: the square-jawed, straight-talking engineer would be in charge of digging them out. At first 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". But eventually, contact was made, the work was on, and the miners were calling him "boss".

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 the glorious finale, the 46-year-old Sougarret was the man with the answers. In choosing the Chilean mining expert, President Sebastian Piñera 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 about the fate of their men down below. Gently but firmly, Sougarret made his first move: ordering out the rescue workers until there was, in fact, someone to rescue. He asked for any 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. Sougarret said: "What we found was a block, a tombstone, like when you're in a lift and the doors open between floors." They later determined the cave-in started at a depth of about 1,000ft, and brought down the very centre of the mine, some 700,000 tons of rock. 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 caught in the 5 August collapse. "It was important to talk to the three who came out last," Aguilar recalled. These men knew what was in the lower reaches of the mine: tanks of water, ventilation shafts, a 48-hour food supply in a reinforced refuge.

When Sougarret took over, seven companies were involved in trying to reach the men. He kept some of those on, aiming at the workshop 2,000ft underground and the refuge at 2,100ft. "We were learning as we were drilling. And the days were beginning to pass," he said. "I clearly thought the men could survive for 30 days, maybe 40 depending on the condition of some of the people, with water and air, without food."

Then, on 19 August, came a crisis: the drill reached 2,200ft, and nothing. The drill had veered off, passing so close to the refuge that the miners could hear and feel it. "That started a crisis with the families. They were very upset because we hadn't reached them," Sougarret said. "There were meetings; there were protests. It was hard," Aguilar added.

There was tremendous pressure. Sougarret said: "The fact is, nobody wanted to show their face, nobody, not one of the companies that were doing the drilling. The only ones were me and Rene. It was only after we reached them and everything was going well that the flags showed up and the whole show started." Finally, on 22 August, came success: the drill broke through to the shaft about 100ft from the miners' refuge. From the surface, the rescue team thought they could hear banging on the drill head. Pulling it up, they 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."

Two more boreholes soon broke through, providing a lifeline for food, medicine and messages. As soon as the miners were found alive, Sougarret mobilised three much more powerful drills, known as Plan A, Plan B and Plan C, each with a different method of pounding through the rock. A third borehole was designated as a guide for the Plan B drill, which widened it from about 6ins to 28ins to provide the miners with a way out.

"Now with three plans it was enough for the two objectives we were looking for: to shorten the time and minimise the risks," Sougarret said. "There were many factors that I couldn't control, and the only way to minimise risks is to have alternatives."

Every day without fail, Sougarret talked to the trapped miners, first on a phone dropped down the hole, and eventually by video conference calls. "They gave us ideas. They were proactive, saying, 'Don't worry, Boss, tomorrow I'll tell you if it can be done."' Some miners drew up maps using measuring devices the rescuers sent down the boreholes.

While Piñera pledged to bring the miners home by Christmas, Sougarret calculated the potential velocity of each drill and bet on three dates: 1 December for Plan A to reach the refuge, 10 October for Plan B to reach the workshop and 30 October for the shaft in between. At 8.05am on 9 October, 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. "I always said that if these people are alive and I have contact with them and I can get food to them, they could spend a year and nothing will happen to them. It was a question of time."

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