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@Kaustubh Katdare • 15 Oct, 2010
Chile's president couldn't have been wrong with his decision to appoint Er. Andre Sougarret on the mission of rescuing the miners stuck deep in a gold mine in Chile, before Christmas this year. Er Sougarret was appointed as the man in charge of the rescue operation three days after the mine collapsed on August 5, 2010. At first Sougarret worried — no one knew if the miners were alive, and the pressure was on to reach them. And he knew he would be blamed if the men were found dead "because we didn't reach them or the work was too slow."

Andre Sougarret headed of the rescue operation at the San Jose Mine in Chile (AP) rescue may come sooner than scheduled. (AP Photo/Aliosha Marquez)

In Sougarret's own words, the rescue operation was his life's biggest challenge. Sougarret tried to keep his head cool and tried not to dwell too much on the condition of the miners, what's happening to them. He told himself that why the miners were there was not his responsibility. His responsibility was to get the miners out of the mine. He immediately flew to the target spot (in Chile's northern Atacama desert) and found encountered a nest of confusion among rescue team, police officers, volunteers and relatives of the miners. He, along with Rene Aguilar - 35 year old risk manager of the mine, started analyzing the maps of the mine. The two men built an operation that over the weeks got over 300 men working on it.

Among their first steps was to ride into the mine in a truck. "We knew it collapsed. What does collapsed mean?" Sougarret said. "What we found was a block, a tombstone, like when you're in an elevator and the doors open between floors." The smooth, solid wall was part of a huge block of stone that cut off the shaft that corkscrews for more than four miles (seven kilometers) to a depth of 2,625 feet (800 meters). They later determined the cave-in started at a depth of about 1,000 feet (355 meters), and brought down the very center of the mine, some 700,000 tons of rock.

When Sougarret took over, seven companies were already involved in trying to reach the men. He decided to keep some of those on, aiming at the workshop 2,041 feet (622 meters) underground and the refuge, at 2,100 feet (700 meters). "We were learning as we were drilling. And the days were beginning to pass," he said.

It was 19th of August when the things started to look wrong. Even after hitting 700 meters, there was no sign of the miners. However the drilling continued...710...720...and there was no hope even when the drill reached 770 meters. The drill had actually veered off, just passing by the refuge so close that the miners could actually hear it. With no success so far, the protests had began and the situation was harder than ever before. There was tremendous pressure. "It would be my fault if they were to die because we didn't reach them or the work was too slow," Sougarret said.

Finally, on Aug. 22, came success: The drill broke through to the shaft about 150 feet (50 meters) 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." As soon as the miners were found alive, Sougarret mobilized three much more powerful drills, soon to be known as Plan A, Plan B and Plan C, each with different methods of pounding through the rock. A third borehole was designated as a guide for the Plan B drill, which widened it from about 6 inches (15 centimeters) to 28 inches (70 centimeters) to provide the miners with a way out. "Now with three plans it was enough for the two objectives we were looking for: shorten the time and minimize risks," Sougarret said. "There were many factors that I couldn't control, and the only way to minimize risks is to have alternatives."

However, even during the highest pressure days, Sougarret kept his mind cool and focused on his mission - getting the miners out of the refuge. Sougarret talked to the miners every day, motivated them and asked for their inputs.

With three drills advancing toward the men, it was only a matter of time. While Pinera pledged to bring the miners home by Christmas, Sougarret calculated the potential velocity of each drill and bet on three dates: Dec. 1 for Plan A to reach the refuge, Oct. 10 for Plan B to reach the workshop and Oct. 30 for the shaft in between. At 8:05 a.m. on Oct. 9, 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.

Urzua, the shift foreman, had this to say as he hugged the man who saved the 33: "You always gave us the straight talk, always speaking the truth."

Source: Associated Press

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