Ever since 33 mine workers were found to be still alive at the San José gold and copper mine near Copiapó, Chile 17 days after its collapse, I have been following reports about efforts to rescue them. It reminded me of Apollo 13, when professionalism and ingenuity of both the ground crews and the astronauts enabled their survival and safe return.
I can’t even begin to image what the first 17 days must have felt like for the miners, before there was any contact with rescuers. They had almost no food, surviving essentially on kilos of lost body fat. Millions of people around the world finally breathed a collective sigh of relief when the last man had returned to the surface safely and all were reunited with their loved ones. Such happy endings are rare in large mining accidents.
Fenix 2, the rescue capsule used to return the 33 mine workers and 6 rescuers back to the surface was built by Asmar (Astilleros y Maestranzas de la Armada chilena), a shipbuilding company of the Chilean navy. Its design is derived from the “Dahlbusch bomb“, a rescue vehicle designed by German engineer Eberhard Au in 1955 to rescue miners after a disaster at the Dahlbusch coal mine in Gelsenkirchen/West Germany. Similar designs are in used in many countries now. The Chilean version was designed with the help of NASA engineers. Eberhard Au never took out a patent for his invention: “The main thing is that the guys get out.”
Unlike the original (which is on display at the Deutsches Museum in Munich), Fenix 2 has 8 wheels, 4 at the top and 4 at the bottom, spaced 90 degrees apart so that it could run down the rescue shaft (which is not quite vertical) with minimal friction and wear.
The Chilean government has not revealed exactly how much it spent on saving the lives of the 33, but the Chilean national copper company that was put in charge is reported to have budgeted 15 million dollars for it. After the mine collapse on Aug 5, 2010 the miners first tried to escape on their own using ventilation shafts that connect all levels of the mine, but they found that metal ladders were missing. The mining company was supposed to have installed the ladders after being closed down for a previous accident. The company may have saved a little bit of money by not installing safety equipment, but at what cost to the nation and risk to the miners?
The wide publicity achieved by the successful rescue efforts has put a spotlight on mine safety not just in Chile, but worldwide. For instance, the safety record of Chinese coal mines is still terrible. Better safety regulations and stricter enforcement of existing regulations could save not only countless lives, but also money.