- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Having survived 69 days underground, the last of the 33 miners trapped in a Chilean mine emerged from the bowels of the earth late Wednesday and were reunited with loved ones, capping a grueling, dramatic rescue made possible by a generous supply of U.S. equipment, manpower and ingenuity.

One by one, the miners were hoisted to the surface in an operation that began late Tuesday and transfixed the world.

More than two months after being trapped in the collapsed mine, including more than two weeks during which they were feared dead, the men emerged to hugs, tears and cheers from Chileans.

“Welcome to life,” Chilean President Sebastian Pinera told Victor Segovia, the 15th miner out, according to the Associated Press.

Two Coloradans who had been drilling water wells for U.S. troops in Afghanistan and a team of NASA doctors and engineers whose experience with astronauts leaving the pull of gravity played crucial roles in ensuring the rescue.

Jeff Hart and Matt Staffel were instructed by their employer, Layne Christensen Co. of Mission Woods, Kan., to drop what they were doing in Afghanistan and head to Chile for a rescue mission. The drillers worked for 33 days straight before they were able to bore down to the trapped men on Saturday.

The first miner out was Florencio Avalos, who emerged from the cramped escape capsule appropriately dubbed Phoenix and hugged his sobbing 7-year-old son, his wife and the Chilean president.

“This rescue operation has been so marvelous, so clean, so emotional that there was no reason not to allow the eyes of the world — which have been watching this operation so closely — to see it,” Mr. Pinera said at a news conference after Mr. Avalos was brought to the surface.

Carlos Mamani, the only Bolivian among the miners, was visited in the hospital by Mr. Pinera and Bolivian President Evo Morales.

The miners were monitored by video on their ride up to freedom in the cramped capsule. They wore dark glasses to protect their eyes from the unfamiliar sunlight and sweaters to ward off the cold.

The men wore oxygen masks, and their vital signs were closely monitored. They were fed a high-calorie liquid diet donated by NASA that is designed to prevent nausea as the capsule traveled up through the curvy escape hole.

The men became trapped when the San Jose copper and gold mine near the northern town of Copiapo, Chile, collapsed on Aug. 5.

Layne’s Latin American affiliate, Geotec Boyles Bros., brought in a Schramm T130 tophead drill about two weeks after the mine collapsed. The drill bits were made by Center Rock Inc. of Berlin, Pa.

“Their mission was to drill a hole. These two have tons of experience … they are the best drillers in the world,” said a woman familiar with the rescue operation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak with the media.

“Jeff [Hart] described the drilling as the hardest thing he had to do,” she added.

The drillers bored a hole nearly a half-mile deep and 26 inches in diameter — large enough to accommodate the Phoenix.

Three routes to reach the miners were explored.

In the end, Plan B worked.

Had Layne and Geotec not been there, it probably would have taken until Christmas for ‘Plan A’ or ‘Plan C’ to break through,” said Dave Singleton, water-resources division president for Layne Christensen. “We cut more than two months from the original estimate.”

Spanish speakers Doug Reeves and Jorge Herrera from Layne’s western region in the U.S. assisted the drillers.

President Obama said the rescue was “a tribute not only to the determination of the rescue workers and the Chilean government, but also the unity and resolve of the Chilean people who have inspired the world.”

Mr. Obama acknowledged the contribution made by NASA’s team who helped design the Phoenix, U.S. companies that manufactured and delivered the parts of the rescue drill, and the American engineers who flew in from Afghanistan.

NASA also shared medical care and behavioral health expertise with the Chilean doctors at the request of the Chilean government.

Dr. Michael Duncan, deputy chief medical officer in NASA’s Space Life Sciences Directorate at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, led a four-man NASA team to Chile.

Other members of the team included Dr. J.D. Polk, psychologist Al Holland and engineer Clint Cragg. A former Navy submarine captain, Mr. Cragg led a team of NASA engineers and technical specialists to design the rescue pod.

The Chileans were interested in parallels the NASA team could draw from its spaceflight experience that could be applied to the case of the trapped miners. The team found many similarities.

“Anytime you are in a stressful circumstance, there can be imbalances in the immune system, and those can result in latent virus reactivation,” Dr. Duncan said in a phone interview.

In the initial days of the ordeal, the miners conserved rations by eating two spoonfuls of tuna, a sip of milk, a bite of crackers and a small portion of peaches every other day.

Vitamin D supplements were later added to their diets to make up for the lack of exposure to sunlight.

Like astronauts in space, the miners were unable to bathe, which increased their risk of skin infections.

One of the miners, who had some first-aid training, was appointed “doctor” by the group, and the Chilean doctors would talk to him every day to discuss health issues the men were facing.

Dr. Duncan’s team had the opportunity to sit in on one of those private conferences.

On being introduced to Dr. Duncan, the miners broke into their now-familiar chant “Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le! Los mineros de Chile!”

“To hear the spirit that these guys have and how pleased they were that we in the NASA team were working with them really warmed our hearts,” Dr. Duncan said.

The NASA team spent four days in Chile — one in Santiago and three at the mine site.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden praised the team’s effort on Wednesday.

“I am proud of the people of this agency who were able to bring the experience of spaceflight down to Earth when it was needed most,” Mr. Bolden said.

The miners’ ordeal, however, may be far from over. They will be monitored for the effects of an extended exposure to dust, heat and humidity. The side effects could include lung and respiratory infections, as well as skin irritation. They also will be checked for post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We all were wondering what they were going to look like when they are brought to the surface. Our Chilean colleagues have done an excellent job in maintaining their health, providing proper nutrition, an exercise regime … but so far so good,” Dr. Duncan said.

This was the first time NASA has been involved in an underground rescue operation.

“This whole situation is very unique,” said Dr. Duncan. “It is the first time that this number of people have been trapped for this long this far underground. It is a testament to the tenacity of the Chileans that they have been able to affect this rescue.”

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