Hope and determination in Chile

Every once in a while and event comes along that unites people across the world in hope; even more rare is it that someone so involved with such an event comes to Mines. On Friday the 25th of February, revered driller, Jeff Hart, who made his mark as the lead driller in the rescue efforts in the Chilean mine disaster talked in front of an eager crowd of Mines students, faculty, and collegiate mining teams from across North America. During the hour and a half long presentation Hart, who is a driller for Layne Christensen, a drilling company that works around the globe, recounted the series of events that lead up to the completion of the relief hole that served as an exit for the 33 trapped Chilean miners.

The story of Hart’s involvement in the project began with a simple, “we have a project for you” from one of the people in charge of the drilling company. Hart and his team had been stationed in Afghanistan drilling water wells for the front line military bases when the disaster occurred. Where most of the world didn’t hear of the disaster when it actually happened, as drillers, Hart and his team took an interest into the event; still it would take a few more days and one of the largest surprises in the world to get them involved. The first thought that Hart had on the disaster was simple, “this was not a rescue but a recovery.” The minds of everyone in the world would be changed just a few days later when the first drill hole was completed; when the bit was taken back up to the surface, the end was painted red and had a note tied to it that read “We are well in the refuge, the 33.”       

From there it became a rush to get down and rescue the miners. “When people from all walks of life put down what they are doing to come together like this, there is no way you can fail,” philosophized Hart, “this was more important than what I was doing.” Originally the Chilean government cited around four months to make it down to the trapped miners with their main strategy, for Hart and his team, this was too long. After they were finally hired on to the job, they sat down and crunched numbers to come up with an estimate of 30-40 days as opposed to the much longer time proposed earlier. The plan B, so it was termed, was to use the “Hand of God” hole that had been drilled as an emergency hole and enlarge it to the diameter required by the government. This would be done using special bits that could follow the original hole while grinding up the area around it.       

By the time Hart and his team had reached the site in Chile after a long and arduous journey from Afghanistan and the United States, trouble was already waiting down hole. The team hardly had time to reflect on their surroundings when one of the people in charge came up to them and said, “Boy did you show up at a good time.” It turns out that one of the drill bits had sheared off in the hole and needed to be fished out in order to continue the operation; after a few tries the team was successful and with that act they had earned some needed respect on the site. The site itself was quite powerful emotionally; “every photo you had seen was now looking you in the face,” reflected Hart.       

After that point the drilling continued at a steady pace, only when the hole had to be enlarged to the final diameter did problems arise. While tensions began to mount on the surface between the three competing drilling teams, the new specialized bits used by Hart and his team began to have problems. Hart recollected that after the first 50 meters the surface got a call from the miners saying that some steel cuttings were beginning to fall down to their level. While it was known that some of the bits would be worn away and would fall down the hole, the magnitude of the problem was not realized until a few drilling sessions later the miners reported that the bit itself had fallen down the hole. “It is really handy to have a guy at the bottom of the hole you are drilling,” said Hart to a now amused audience. It turns out the problem resulted from the angle of the drill hole. Normally a drill bit such as the one they were using would be used in a completely vertical setting; on the other hand the one used by Hart and his team was at around 11 degrees off vertical.

This last problem showcased the true dedication that the world had to the disaster, as soon as the bit was shown to have problems, people within the company immediately got to work designing a much better version that would not have as much of a problem and as soon as the bits were completed, UPS shipped it down pro-bono through customs in the short time of four days. Along with that the teams began to realize simply that it didn’t matter who got down to the miners first as long as somebody got down there and they were all doing their best. It was at this point that Hart revealed his mentality through the circumstance, every day he would reflect “How could we get there today,” it was this that kept him drilling.

Within the last stretch the team hit a major problem. In the drilling world you want your holes to be straight since it is incredibly difficult to bend a hole around a curve. Along the plan B hole teams of drill hole experts had determined that there were three hazardous turns all close to the end. The first two proved to be insignificant as the drill went through them as though they were aligned with the rest of the hole. The third, on the other hand, proved to almost end the project for Hart and his team. The first attempt at the third turn resulted in drilling around 30 meters until the drill wouldn’t go any further, the next attempt only resulted in 2 meters and the last wasn’t even a meter. “Every time we would bring up the bit it would look worse than if we had drilled 10,000 meters with it,” recalled Hart. The team finally gave in to the government who had suggested that they use a slightly smaller bit and if they failed with that, it would be a game over for the project. Though the team was frightened, the smaller bit went right through as though there were no problem at all which meant it was just a little bit more to go until the hole was completed.

More pressure mounted as the bit became stuck just a few meters from completion. In order to free the bit, Hart and his team tried a variety of methods including cranking the drill up to its limits, though no method had resulted in success. There was one last method referred to as a drill whip, in which the drill is “whipped” by the machine, though according to Hart, the method very rarely works and would have resulted in the project failing. As it was their last option, they challenged fate and it came free, “that was my one time in ten, I wouldn’t ever try it again,” quipped Hart. Given the urgency and the 24 hour replacement time, Hart decided to keep going and finally the relief hole was completed.

After to completion of the hole Hart was escorted down to the local town where we was presented to the families of the miners and the media, according to him it was a very emotional moment seeing the pride and hope that the hole had been completed and soon the missing members of these families would be able to return home.

To finish off the presentation Hart gave a few thoughtful and powerful pieces of advice. The first was simple, “what you do for a living can affect the entire world,” posed Hart. When asked what he learned in his heart through the experience, hart responded, “these people truly do care about each other and I wish we could see that more here, but we can start one person at a time.”

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