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The Man Behind The Rescue Of The Chilean Miners

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SAN JOSE MINE, Chile — Three days after 33 men were sealed deep within a gold mine, Andre Sougarret was summoned by Chile's president.

The Chilean leader got right to the point: The square-jawed, straight-talking engineer would be in charge of digging them out.

At first Sougarret worried – no one knew if the miners were alive, and the pressure was on to reach them. And he knew he would be blamed if the men were found dead "because we didn't reach them or the work was too slow."

But eventually, contact was made, the work was on, and the miners below were calling him "boss."

The mission was unprecedented. No one had ever drilled so far to reach trapped miners. No one knew where to find them.

From the first confusing days to this week's glorious finale, the 46-year-old Sougarret was the man with the answers.

And at the end, the last miner to reach the surface, shift foreman Luis Urzua, would tell him: "People like you are worth a lot of money in Chile."

Sougarret's management of the crisis was so successful that nearly all the rescued miners walked out of the hospital Friday perfectly healthy. While a handful left through one door into a news media storm, most of the others were secreted away through a side entrance to be taken home, hospital officials said. Two of the miners required more attention and were transferred to other hospitals.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Sougarret told how he assembled a team of experts and methodically worked the problem that would become the biggest challenge of his life.

In choosing the young Chilean mining expert, President Sebastian Pinera had turned to the man who ran the world's most productive subterranean mine, El Teniente, for Chile's state-owned Codelco copper company.

A methodical engineer who stays cool-headed under pressure, Sougarret said he tried not to dwell too much on the men he was trying to save.

"I never allowed myself to think about what was happening with them – that's anxiety-causing," he said. "I told myself, 'My objective is to create an access, a connection. Put that in your head.'"

"Why they were there and what happened, that's not my responsibility. My responsibility is to get there and get them out."

Sougarret flew immediately to the mine in Chile's northern Atacama desert, and encountered a nest of confusion, with rescue workers, firefighters, police officers, volunteers and relatives desperate for word about the fate of their men down below.

Gently but firmly, Sougarret made his first move: ordering out the rescue workers until there was, in fact, someone to rescue. He asked for any maps of the mine and assembled a team, starting with Rene Aguilar, the 35-year-old risk manager at El Teniente.

In the weeks that followed, the two men built an operation that grew to more than 300 people.

Among their first steps was to ride into the mine in a truck.

"We knew it collapsed. What does collapsed mean?" Sougarret said. "What we found was a block, a tombstone, like when you're in an elevator and the doors open between floors."

The smooth, solid wall was part of a huge block of stone that cut off the shaft that corkscrews for more than four miles (seven kilometers) to a depth of 2,625 feet (800 meters). They later determined the cave-in started at a depth of about 1,000 feet (355 meters), and brought down the very center of the mine, some 700,000 tons of rock.

Drilling through would risk provoking another collapse, crushing anything below.

So, an entirely new shaft would have to be drilled to try to reach the men. And they needed to call in more expertise: the miners who had narrowly escaped being crushed in the Aug. 5 collapse.

"It was important to talk with the three who came out last," Aguilar recalled. These men knew what was in the lower reaches of the mine: tanks of water, ventilation shafts, a 48-hour food supply in a reinforced refuge far beneath the surface.

A map was key to reaching the men. The drills would have to seek a path through solid rock to avoid veering off into an open or collapsed space below. But this mine had been so honeycombed over its long history that there were no precise maps.

They would have to make their best guesses about where to drill.

"We were building an idea about where they might be," Sougarret said.

The miners who surfaced before the cave-in described where the men would have been working: likely near a workshop and reinforced refuge where they normally gathered to be taken to the surface for their lunch break.

"Now with all these elements, one could clearly say there is a hope that they were alive," Sougarret said.

When Sougarret took over, seven companies were already involved in trying to reach the men. He decided to keep some of those on, aiming at the workshop 2,041 feet (622 meters) underground and the refuge, at 2,100 feet (700 meters).

"We were learning as we were drilling. And the days were beginning to pass," he said.

"I clearly thought the men could survive for 30 days, maybe 40 depending on the condition of some of the people, with water and air, without food. ... That was the fact that I kept in my head," Sougarret said.

Then, on Aug. 19, came a crisis: The drill reached 700 meters, and nothing. "It passed 710, passed 720, and we got to 770 and didn't find anything."

The drill had veered off, passing so close to the refuge that the miners could hear and feel it.

"That started a crisis with the families. They were very upset because we hadn't reached them," Sougarret said.

"There were meetings, there were protests. It was hard," Aguilar added.

There was tremendous pressure. "It would be my fault if they were to die because we didn't reach them or the work was too slow," Sougarret said.

"The fact is, nobody wanted to show their face, nobody, not one of the companies that were doing the drilling. The only ones were me and Rene. ... It was only after we reached them and everything was going well that the flags showed up and the whole show started."

Finally, on Aug. 22, came success: The drill broke through to the shaft about 150 feet (50 meters) from the miners' refuge.

From the surface, the rescue team thought they could hear banging on the drill head. Pulling it up, they found a message tied in a plastic bag and pressed inside the thread of the drill: "We're all OK in the refuge, the 33."

In the days that followed, two more boreholes would break through, providing a life line for sending down food, medicine and messages of encouragement.

As soon as the miners were found alive, Sougarret mobilized three much more powerful drills, soon to be known as Plan A, Plan B and Plan C, each with different methods of pounding through the rock.

A third borehole was designated as a guide for the Plan B drill, which widened it from about 6 inches (15 centimeters) to 28 inches (70 centimeters) to provide the miners with a way out.

"Now with three plans it was enough for the two objectives we were looking for: shorten the time and minimize risks," Sougarret said. "There were many factors that I couldn't control, and the only way to minimize risks is to have alternatives."

Every day without fail, Sougarret talked with the trapped miners, first on a phone dropped down the hole, and eventually by video conference calls. "They gave us ideas. They were proactive, (saying) 'Don't worry, Boss, tomorrow I'll tell you if it can be done.'"

Some miners drew up maps using measuring devices the rescuers sent down the boreholes.

With three drills advancing toward the men, it was only a matter of time. While Pinera pledged to bring the miners home by Christmas, Sougarret calculated the potential velocity of each drill and bet on three dates: Dec. 1 for Plan A to reach the refuge, Oct. 10 for Plan B to reach the workshop and Oct. 30 for the shaft in between.

At 8:05 a.m. on Oct. 9, Plan B broke through. He had been off by a single day.

It was still necessary to encase the top of the tunnel in steel pipes and test the escape capsule, but Sougarret was no longer nervous.

"This last stage for me was like butter," he said with a smile.

"I always said that if these people are alive and I have contact with them and I can get food to them, they could spend a year (below) and nothing will happen to them. It was a question of time."

There was much talk during the rescue about controlling the information reaching the miners to keep them from becoming demoralized about how long the rescue would take.

But Sougarret always told them the truth.

Urzua, the shift foreman, had this to say as he hugged the man who saved the 33: "You always gave us the straight talk, always speaking the truth."

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