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."

Suggested Topics
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Sport
Frank Lampard and his non-celebration
premier leagueManchester City vs Chelsea match report from the Etihad Stadium
Arts and Entertainment
'New Tricks' star Dennis Waterman is departing from the show after he completes filming on two more episodes
tvOnly remaining original cast-member to leave crime series
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
premier league
Sport
Mario Balotelli celebrates his first Liverpool goal
premier leagueLiverpool striker expressed his opinion about the 5-3 thriller with Leicester - then this happened
News
people'I hated him during those times'
News
Britain's shadow chancellor Ed Balls (L) challenges reporter Rob Merrick for the ball during the Labour Party versus the media soccer match,
peopleReporter left bleeding after tackle from shadow Chancellor in annual political football match
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says
tvSpoiler warning: Star of George RR Martin's hit series says viewers have 'not seen the last' of him/her
News
i100
News
Dame Vivienne Westwood has been raging pretty much all of her life
peopleMemoir extracts show iconic designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Life and Style
fashionAlexander Fury's Spring/Summer 2015 London Fashion Week roundup
Arts and Entertainment
Lauryn Hill performing at the O2 Brixton Academy last night
musicSinger was more than 90 minutes late on stage in Brixton show
News
i100
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
News
people''Women's rights is too often synonymous with man-hating'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Head of Marketing and Communications - London - up to £80,000

£70000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Group Head of Marketing and Communic...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery Nurse required for ...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: L3 Nursery Nurses urgently required...

SEN Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: We have a number of schools based S...

Day In a Page

Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam