Driller from Denver Becomes Chile Mine Rescue Hero

The T-130 drill operators, Jeff Hart, left, and Matt Staffel, right, both from Denver, Colorado, embrace Elizabeth Segovia, sister of trapped miner Dario Segovia Rojo at the San Jose mine near Copiapo, Chile Saturday, Oct. 9, 2010. A drilling rig punched through to the underground site where the 33 miners have been trapped for 66 days under the Chilean desert, raising cheers, tears and hopes. (AP Photo/Roberto Candia)

Jeff Hart was drilling water wells for the U.S. Army’s forward operating bases in Afghanistan when he got the call to fly to Chile.  He spent the next 33 days on his feet, operating the drill that finally provided a way out Saturday for 33 trapped miners.

“You have to feel through your feet what the drill is doing; it’s a vibration you get so that you know what’s happening,” explained Hart, a contractor from Denver, Colorado.  A muscular, taciturn man with callused hands and a sunburned face, Hart normally pounds rock for oil or water.  He’s used to extreme conditions while he works the hydraulic levers that guide the drills’ hammers.  But this was something different – 33 lives were depending on him.

“I was nervous today,” said Hart, 40.  He joked that he thought it was his heart stopping when he felt an unexplained “pop” just before the drill broke through into a chamber far underground. “I didn’t want anything to go wrong.  Within hours after the gold and copper mine collapsed August 5th, Chile’s government realized the mine’s owners were ill-equipped to handle the rescue and asked the state-owned Codelco mining company to take the lead.

Codelco turned to Geotec Boyles Bros., a U.S.-Chilean company, to handle the “Plan B” escape shaft, one of three simultaneous drilling efforts that raced to reach the miners.  Geotec operations manager James Stefanic said he quickly assembled “a top of the line team” of drillers.  Hart was called in from Afghanistan, “simply because he’s the best,” Stefanic said.

Standing before the levers, pressure meters and gauges on the T130’s control panel, Hart and the rest of the team faced many challenges in drilling the shaft. At one point, the drill struck a metal support beam in the poorly mapped mine, shattering its hammers. Fresh equipment had to be flown in from the United States and progress was delayed for days as powerful magnets were lowered to pull out the pieces.

Fisher, Stefanic and Hart called it the most difficult hole they had ever drilled, because of the lives at stake.  “If you’re drilling for oil and you lose the hole, it’s different. This time there’s people down below,” Stefanic said.  “We got the job done,” Hart said simply.  “I’m very happy now.”

Source: The Associated Press

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