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Employees of the Canadian company Precision Drilling finish planting a Canadian flag among the Chilean flags planted weeks ago for the miners in Copiapo on Oct. 2, 2010. (STRINGER/CHILE/Luis Hidalgo/Reuters)
Employees of the Canadian company Precision Drilling finish planting a Canadian flag among the Chilean flags planted weeks ago for the miners in Copiapo on Oct. 2, 2010. (STRINGER/CHILE/Luis Hidalgo/Reuters)

Canadian effort to reach trapped Chilean miners lagging Add to ...

A Canadian oil rig dominates the landscape overlooking the San Jose mine in northern Chile, where 33 miners have been trapped underground for a record-breaking two months. The machine - 43 metres tall - sits atop a large platform, and Canadian and Chilean flags can be seen flying from a distance.

The Canadian effort is the site of the most-recently launched of the three rescue efforts, the progress of which are being closely watched as the government announced the miners could be rescued as early as next week.

Many technical aspects of the rescue, involving three drills operating simultaneously in a race to reach the men and a 21-inch-wide capsule that will eventually be lowered to bring them to the surface, had to be improvised. As a NASA specialist visiting the site said early in the rescue: "The Chileans are basically writing the book."

At 587 metres deep, Plan A has come closest to the miners but the hole will need to be widened. Plan B has hit a few snags with broken drill heads, but at 466 metres is considered most likely to reach the miners first, anywhere within the next week or two. Plan C, the Canadian effort, suffered a setback over the weekend due to the difficulty in aiming the larger drill toward the miners and hardness of the rock. Many family members of the miners once had high hopes for the Canadian rig, but it has had to reduce its drill size and is lagging behind, at just over 265 metres deep.

In recognition of the country's involvement in the rescue, an additional Canadian flag was raised on the hillside, above the 33 planted flags that serve as a reminder of each of the men still waiting in the hot depths of the vulnerable mine.

Shaun Robstad, a field superintendent with Calgary-based Precision Drilling, has been leading the team of 17 Canadians running Plan C, which began drilling Sept. 19.

"There's a lot of pressure we put on ourselves," Mr. Robstad said.

It took more than 40 truckloads to bring in the equipment and 10,000 cubic metres of rock and gravel were cleared to make room for the rig. Precision had used it previously for an oil operation further north in Chile's resource-rich Atacama desert and offered its use to the rescue Chileans, even though the rig had never been used outside of oil exploration before.

Cementation Canada, based in North Bay, is also involved in the rescue, providing the drill for Plan A. The company's project superintendent, Glen Fallon, is leading a mostly Chilean crew working on the operation.

"I have seen the Canadian team working shoulder to shoulder with the Chilean, Bolivian, Argentina, etc. workers that are working here," Chilean mining minister Laurence Golborne said recently. "Everyone is just trying to get our miners out as soon as possible."

The 32 Chileans and one Bolivian have been trapped 700 metres underground since several parts of the gold and copper mine collapsed on Aug. 5. International interest in the unprecedented rescue has kept up since the men were discovered alive on Aug. 22. Never before have there been so many men, trapped so many days, at such a distance underground.

Special to The Globe and Mail

 

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