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Miner being pulled out of collapsed mine at night Chile's President Sebastian Pinera (fourth from right) was there while a crane pulled miners out using the Phoenix capsule, labeled "Fenix 2." (Hugo Infante / Chilean government)

High-Tech Rescue Saves Chile's Miners

Top-notch technology helped free 33 miners trapped nearly half a mile underground

<br />Juan Illanes was the third miner to be pulled out of the mine inside the Phoenix capsule. (David Mercado / Reuters)

Juan Illanes was the third miner to be pulled out of the mine inside the Phoenix capsule. (David Mercado / Reuters)

It was the most advanced rescue operation of its kind. With the help of special machinery and expert engineers, 33 Chilean miners stuck about 2,000 feet underground finally saw the light of day after more than two months of being buried alive.

Experts from around the world pitched in to help, including many Americans.

A Pennsylvania company provided the gigantic drilling system used to dig the 28-inch rescue hole. The drill is typically used for boring holes in the ground for wells. It had never before been used in a mine rescue. An American engineer flew in from Afghanistan to operate the drill. It can chew through more than 130 feet of rock per day. Its boring implements, called hammers, are made of diamonds and other superstrong rock-shattering materials. Each hammer pounds an average of 1,500 times per minute.

The rescue was expected to take as long as four months. But in less than two months, weeks ahead of schedule, the tunnel was complete. Rescuers then lined the uppermost part of the passageway with metal tubing to help prevent a cave-in.

In the meantime, with the help of the U.S. space agency, NASA, Chilean navy engineers built a special steel rescue capsule to lift the miners one by one to the Earth's surface. Named after a mythical bird called the Phoenix, it weighs more than 500 pounds and is just wider than a man's shoulders. It was equipped with oxygen tanks, a mask, and a communications system, including a camera facing the person inside the capsule. In case the capsule became stuck inside the passageway, its base could be opened to provide an escape hatch to release the miner. Painted in the red, white, and blue of Chile's national flag, it looks like a miniature space rocket. It made the nearly half-mile journey down to the miners in about 15 minutes, quicker than expected.


Initially, small holes were drilled so rescuers could locate the miners. Those holes were then used to send them food and communications equipment. Special plastic tubes nicknamed palomas (Spanish for "doves") were lowered through the six-inch drill hole. Rescuers packed the tubes with special rehydration tablets and high-calorie fluids to help keep the miners alive until they could be rescued.

NASA experts—skilled at helping people live in tight areas in outer space for long periods—helped prepare the miners for rescue with a special high-calorie liquid diet. To help the miners fight foot odor and stave off infection, the experts gave them special bacteria-killing socks made with copper fiber-the very mineral the miners were digging for.

A superflexible communications cable provided by a Japanese company was lowered through the hole for videoconferencing and as a phone line. High-tech equipment also enabled the miners to watch movies.

They received electricity through a tiny device that can convert the energy from a car battery into electrical power. They used the battery of a truck that was in the mine with them. Later, a power line was lowered that allowed them to install regular electrical lights.

The miners endured a long, scary ordeal, but with the help of many rescue workers and modern technology, they were able to have some of the comforts of home—and get back to the light of day and their loved ones waiting for them there.

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