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February 17, 2011

Underground rescue strike force urged

President of firm that made drill bit used in Chilean rescue speaks here

The head of a drilling firm instrumental in rescuing miners in Chile and at the Quecreek Mine in Somerset County advocated for the establishment of a strike force for underground rescue in a recent talk on campus.

“It’s been an overwhelming experience since September,” said Brandon Fisher, founder of Center Rock. The Berlin, Pa.-based drilling supply manufacturer’s equipment and expertise is credited with speeding the rescue of 33 miners trapped more than 2,000 feet underground by a mine collapse in Chile last August.

Brandon Fisher, left, and Richard Soppe of Center Rock and the 26-inch LP drill that broke through into the mine.

Brandon Fisher, left, and Richard Soppe of Center Rock and the 26-inch LP drill that broke through into the mine.

“It’s given us the opportunity to talk about what we’ve done and also to talk about some of the things that we hope can be done in our own country here to develop rescue procedures for mining,” he said in a Feb. 10 lecture sponsored by the Center for National Preparedness in which he recounted his involvement with the rescue.

“It was the most emotional experience of my entire life,” Fisher said. “I was on pins and needles for 37 days. I don’t think there was a minute of those 37 days that we weren’t worried we were going to fail.”

The collapse occurred on Aug. 5, but it wasn’t until 17 days later that a small exploratory hole drilled by Chilean crews broke through into the space where the miners had taken refuge.

“They attached a note and sent it up with the drill pipe stating that all 33 men were alive and well,” Fisher said, adding that’s when he learned about the situation. “Quickly it spread all over the world that there were 33 guys 2,000 feet deep in the ground in a very desperate situation. Within one or two days the Chilean mining industry announced that they did have a rescue plan developed and they were ready to start it,” he said.

The plan, involving somewhat antiquated technology, “most likely would have taken until Christmas,” Fisher said. He knew his company’s technology could reach the miners faster.

Central Rock manufactures drilling equipment and designs and builds new technology for drilling large-diameter deep shafts for mine ventilation, for rescue, as well as for natural gas drilling and infrastructure drilling.

The company also was involved in the 2002 rescue of nine miners who were trapped underground at Quecreek in Somerset County.

“It was just natural for us to want to get involved in this situation, with the technology we developed and our own experiences. And also it’s close to all of our hearts,” he said. “Just about everyone in my company either knows someone or has a family member somewhere in the mining industry. Mining in general — whether it’s gold, copper, coal, whatever — kind of comes close to our hearts, especially with the disasters we’ve faced in the past.”

Although the initial rescue plan estimated it would take several months to rescue the Chilean miners, the so-called “Plan B” using Center Rock’s technology broke through to the miners on Oct. 9, having used specially designed 26-inch and 28-inch bits in the drilling.

Enduring desert conditions and temperature extremes that ranged from the 30s at night to the 80s during the day, the drilling team worked around the clock to reach the miners.

Drillers worked around the clock to reach the 33 trapped miners in Chile.

Drillers worked around the clock to reach the 33 trapped miners in Chile.

Beneath the surface, the 33 miners worked three shifts to remove the rock cuttings that fell. “That they were part of their own rescue was great for their morale,” Fisher said, noting that a closed-circuit system that included a video monitor enabled rescuers to see and communicate with the miners, and ultimately to see the drill break through.

“It was an unbelievably emotional experience,” Fisher said. “The biggest guys on the job site were crying.”

However, by the time the last of the miners was brought to the surface on Oct. 13, Fisher was back in Pennsylvania.

“As soon as we drilled that hole, our job was over,” he said, noting that had the drillers stayed, they would have been in the way of the crews who brought the miners to the surface.

Fisher said Chile’s largest mining group is having the rescue equipment refurbished so it can be put into service quickly should a similar emergency occur.

Similar preparation needs to be made in the United States, he said.

“One of my pushes and big efforts ever since 2002 is to try and develop — and have the government or someone fund — a rapid response drill and rescue team,” Fisher said. “If another Quecreek happens, if another Sago mine [accident] happens, the odds of having that equipment in one place and a team trained to do that drilling are very narrow,” he said, adding that personnel should be trained, equipment prepared and procedures developed in advance to streamline rescue procedures.

He acknowledged that situations vary widely, but key factors including the geology, the mine depth and the presence of water typically would need to be determined, he said.

In addition, communication protocols must be developed. Who is the first responder? Who calls the shots at the site? Who should be in charge, the government or the drilling team?

“Those were part of the problems we faced with Quecreek and with the Sago mine and with some of the other disasters we’ve been involved in,” he said.

“There’s all these things that need to be sorted out well in advance. In every situation we’ve been involved in, including Chile, we were inside of the problem,” Fisher said, reiterating that the middle of a crisis is no time to begin thinking about the process. “It takes time, and not always is the right thing done,” he said.

Ken Sochats, director of Pitt’s Center for National Preparedness, expressed interest in pursuing the development of an underground rescue strike force. “Hopefully we can collaborate on that,” he said.

Information on the Center for National Preparedness can be found at Details on the Chilean mine rescue are available at

—Kimberly K. Barlow

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