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World rallies to trapped miners

Experts and equipment converge on Chile to help rescue the workers and keep their spirits up.

By Staff writer, Aaron NelsenCorrespondent / September 13, 2010



Mexico City; and Santiago, Chile

Since a note in red marker came up from the depths of the Atacama desert, alerting the world that the Chilean miners buried for 17 days and feared dead were trapped but alive, the globe has kicked into gear to secure their rescue. Space agency specialists, schooled in enduring isolation, are on the ground, as are the world's best mining experts from the United States to Australia.

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If ever there was a moment of optimism in tragedy, it is now. But the rescue effort that is under way, a strategy that necessitates that the miners remain a half mile underground for up to four months, will be one of the most complex challenges of its kind, with the mental health of the miners a central concern and an engineering task promising no clear outcome.

"Because of the rock, it will take a fair amount of time. They will have to put in the rescue shaft very carefully to make sure, while drilling, they do not change the nature of the conditions," says Michael Nelson, chairman of the mining and engineering department at the University of Utah. "People think we just have to drill a hole. They think of taking a drill in their garage and drilling through a piece of wood.... In any human effort where we are doing things in earth, we are dealing with something never completely known."

The rock in which they were mining has a tendency to weaken in areas, experts say. The roof of the gold and copper mine collapsed Aug. 5, trapping the miners three miles from the entrance and 2,300 feet down. The miners took refuge in a nearby shelter containing food, water, and oxygen.

On Aug. 31, rescue efforts began as a 31-ton Raise Borer Strata 950 started carving out some 20 meters (about 66 feet) of rock per day. At that rate, it could take until after Christmas to drill a two-foot-diameter hole some 2,300 feet down. Cages would then lift the miners out over a three-to-four-day period, says Chilean Mining Minister Laurence Golborne.

Because the target shaft is being designed by engineers familiar with the drills and the geology in this part of the desert, Andrew Wala of the University of Kentucky says he is confident the men can be secured safely. "They are going to drill a small diameter to get these people. I doubt there will be the possibility of the shaft to collapse," says the professor of mining and engineering.

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