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Chilean Miners Rescued With Help From Engineers

On August 5, 2010, the San José copper-gold mine near Copiapó, Chile collapsed, leaving 33 men trapped more than 2,000 feet below ground.

Sixty-nine days later (a record period of time for surviving underground), all 33 of the miners were rescued.

The miners spent 17 days underground before making contact with the outside world. But once they did, engineers had to race to devise an escape shaft that could reach so deep underground – and safely, without harming the men trapped below. In the meantime, teams of rescue specialists worked to make sure the miners stayed healthy and fed.

U.S. engineers from NASA and the Chilean Navy formed an international effort to design the rescue capsule – a bullet-shaped steel vessel 21 inches in diameter that raised the miners one by one up an escape shaft barely wider than an average man’s shoulders.

The capsule had an oxygen supply, a video link, a reinforced roof to protect against rock falls, and an escape hatch with a safety device to lower the miner back down if the capsule became stuck. The capsule even had sunglasses for the miners to wear so that they would not be blinded by their first exposure to sunlight in ten weeks.

 Initially, engineers in Chile estimated that it would take four months to drill an escape shaft so deep underground. However, by widening an existing tunnel, engineers were able to reach the miners in only two months. Once the operation commenced, it took between 30 minutes and an hour to bring up each miner, and all were greeted with loud applause and the smiles of their ecstatic family members.

Chilean President Sebastian Piñera has dismissed top officials of Chile’s mining regulatory agency and has vowed to increase safety standards and protect his country’s work force.

In the days following the accident at the San José mine, 18 mines were shut down and another 300 may be ordered to close. The San José mine is currently closed and may remain so for an extended period of time.