On August 5, 2010, a minor earthquake caused a mine to collapse in Copiapó, Chile, trapping 33 men underground. No one above knew if they were alive or even where they were. All they had to go on was that the men — or at least their corpses — were stuck somewhere between 500 and 800 meters below the earth.
There was really only one piece of information on which everyone agreed: any rescue effort was a race against time. No matter where the miners were when the shaft caved in, the survivors wouldn’t have enough water or food to last long. And since most local drill teams only had equipment capable of excavating down to 400 meters, there was an all-hands-on-deck call. Being a major player in the local industry for more than two decades, Greg Hall’s company, Drillers Supply International, was specifically tasked to lead the rescue.
The biggest reason to maintain hope was that officials knew of an area called “The Refuge” within the mine shaft network where trapped workers could go during an emergency. Hall estimated that the miners, had they found the sanctuary, would be able to survive for three days off the provisions located there.
But after five days of drilling passed with no progress, and then ten days passed with no progress, everyone feared the worst. “By day 15, we were convinced, or pretty sure, that we were now drilling a recovery operation and not a rescue operation,” said Hall in a presentation recounting the rescue at the World Innovation Forum in New York in June.
Still, they persevered, thinking that they would at least eventually find the bodies and allow the miners’ “families be at peace.”
Then, on day 17, the drill reached an area free of rock. And as the drill moved into that void, the rescue team above began to hear beating on the pipe. This confirmed that, despite the odds, there was a survivor. “We didn’t know how many were alive,” said Hall. “We didn’t know what shape they were in. But we knew, miraculously, at least one person was alive.”
They spent the next eight hours pulling up the drill pipe before discovering a note from below. It confirmed that all 33 men were alive and, relatively, well, awaiting rescue. “The supervisor immediately put them on that three days of rations [in the refuge after they were trapped] and stretched it and stretched it and stretched it,” said Hall. “However, by day 15 they were out of food and they were drinking water out of one of the [excavation] machines down there.”
By now, the world knows the rest of the story.
After 69 days below ground, all the men were brought to the surface and home to safety one by one in a capsule that seemed more befitting space or deep sea exploration than a drilling operation.
There were three tremendous challenges in terms of drilling Hall and the others in the team had to overcome to make this happen. The first was depth. The men were stuck more than two thousand feet below. The second was the density of the rock in the area. Geologically, the type of earth complicated everything, making some equipment useless. And the third was the large width of the hole that was needed to extract men of various belt sizes and shoulder circumferences to the surface.
This was the most difficult proposition of all.
They needed a hole at least 24 inches in diameter — something originally thought to be impossible, especially when combined with the depth and geology. But through some innovative thinking, it wasn’t. And the ultimate success in overcoming all these three hurdles was in large part due to the plan devised by Greg Hall.
“Since [the rescue], talking to experts, they still say the job really couldn’t have been done,” said Hall. “It was a very, very high-risk job.” In fact, had lives not been in the balance, he never would have even attempted such drastic measures. “If it was a job for profit, I would have walked away immediately because the risks were too high,” said Hall, who is an ordained Deacon in the Catholic church. “But it’s different when you’re drilling for people and not for profit.”
Once they realized the men were all still alive, the original plan was to — hopefully — bring the men to the surface in five or six months. “I began to think how I would react if that was my son or daughter down there,” said Hall. “Would I just sit there and think ‘I wish I could get them out sooner but oh well’ or would I do whatever I could?”
With this in mind, he started thinking up with “Plan B.” He considered all the machinery on site. He sought critical drilling equipment from a man he had never met named Brandon Fisher in Pennsylvania. And he even helped arrange for a team from the firm Layne Christensen that had been drilling water wells in Afghanistan at the time to fly to Chile.
Once those long-shot logistics started to take shape, Hall believed they could cut the timeline for rescue by more than two-thirds, thereby increasing the odds that more of the miners could be brought up without life-althering health effects. “Nobody thought we were going to be successful…And I’m telling them we can do it in six weeks,” said Hall.
Given the risk, Hall was never sure it would work. Even after the mission proved successful, he still isn’t ready to take much credit. Stealing a phrase from one of the men he worked with who had devised “Plan A,” Hall now routinely says that “God drilled the hole. I just had a good seat.”
In a way, however, all the challenges — the stops and starts, the drill issues, the brutal geology — allowed the team to focus on the moment rather than becoming overwhelmed by the mission of saving 33 mens’ lives. “I just decided to forget everything except the next meter — just drill the next meter and the next meter and the next meter,” said Hall. “That way, when all these other things were going on, we were so concentrated on how to drill that next meter that we were able to focus and do our job. If we had let our emotions get involved, we might have made some catastrophic mistake.”
But as the billion people who watched the rescue know (according to a Chilean government estimate), no such mistakes were made and the incident now serves as one of the best examples of crisis management the world has ever seen. And given his new-found expertise with the risks and realities of rescuing people stuck beneath ground, he will — begrudgingly — answer the call again if the need does arise. In fact, when 14 miners were trapped after an explosion in Mexico in May, they contacted Hall. He was ready to mobilize his company to aid officials there, but unfortunately, those men all died before a rescue operation could even begin.
“As I told my wife before, it was a real blessing and an honor to be involved in this — and I pray it never happens again,” joked Hall. “We will do it [again]. But it’s not something I want to make a career out of.”