Sunday, May 29, 2011

New Book on Chilean Mine Rescue

The book 33 Men by Jonathan Franklin was just released in March and is an interesting read. Last year, as the world watched daily, 33 men were, located, communicated with and eventually rescued in a sophisticated mine-rescue operation at a remote mine site in Chile.

On August 5th of 2010 thirty three miners found themselves on the wrong side of a mine collapse in the lower levels of a large and poorly maintained copper mine. Their route was blocked by a freighter sized collapse of broken rock. Though the miners had heavy machinery, fuel, a supply of explosives and drills it would still have been impossible for them to dig themselves out. They had no alternate escape route since the ventilation shafts never had escape ladders installed as required by Chilean law. The initial collapse severed communication lines and nobody on surface had any way of knowing if any of the thirty three men were dead or alive. Any trapped men would be as deep underground as the tallest skyscraper is tall. Those alive would be in a labyrinth of tunnels averaging 90 degrees heat and 90% humidity. The families of the miners understood death was all but a certainty.
Miraculously, after seventeen days of exploratory drilling to reach the tiny target of one of the tunnels or work stations, one drill found its mark. Word was sent to surface by a note tied to the drill bit - 'Los 33' were all together and safe.
As Franklin describes, the rescue succeeded because the newly elected President of Chile, Sebastien Pinera, decided to have his government intervene and take over the rescue, regardless of the cost*. Despite Chile's pride as a leader in mine technology and Chile having a wealth of mining experience, experts from around the world were called into a highly-scripted, photo-op-filled, spectacle orchestrated by Pinera. He had political hay to make with this dramatic rescue, but clearly without his efforts the men would have died. The mining company responsible was hopelessly in debt and unable to act.
Franklin's book is a good read. He had access to behind the scenes efforts on surface as drillers, medical staff, psychologists and technicians maintained contact and provided food and water, clothing and medicines, letters and magazines through a 3.5 inch drill hole to the men below. Unfortunately the book was rushed to the presses a few weeks before the blue pencil had done its final work. Many phrases and facts are repeated unnecessarily and there is a disorder to the writing. Don't expect well-organized chapters. It's more like tossed-salad.
Franklin also should have spent his weeks on surface talking to miners about the environment of a hard rock mine, or better yet, actually visiting one at work. Many misleading details could have been corrected. Anyone who has spent a day (or less) underground would recognize 'scaling' as a common job which must be performed regularly, not the rare and unusual task Franklin attempts to describe, and any miner could tell that the mesh screening bolted to the roof is, in fact, the proper way to do things. Franklin fails to describe the simplest heavy equipment, such as mine trucks or scoop-trams. A glance at a photo from a mine equipment brochure would have given him a 'Oh, so that's what they were describing...' moment. But I'm sure he was getting around to it.
It won't win a Pulitzer, but this book well describes how tragic events unroll by the minute. We get a glance at the hordes of media in the background as video links provide live footage of sweaty men trapped impossible distances below surface. We learn how the men were fed and clothed, doctored and given water and a hundred other things through a 3.5 inch pipe. We cringe at the overzealous efforts of medical and psychology zealots who overwhelm the fit but bored miners with exercises and intrusions when they simply want to go home.
The happy ending is the returning of Los 33 to their various loved ones; wives, lovers, (and wives & lovers who have just met) children, siblings, parents and fellow miners. Many of the specialty drilling rigs and equipment loans never charged for their work, and firms like UPS shipped tonnes of hardware for free.
It is a great feel-good read because it actually happened this way.

* His decision is a contrast to the tragedy of the Russian submarine Kursk, some years before, when crewmen died slowly and needlessly in a sunken nuclear sub, despite the fact that a foreign submarine rescue ship and submersible escape vehicle was ready willing and able to help, but was not requested by President Putin.