Sunday, October 10, 2010

Chile, Miners, Decisions, and a Long Shaft

"Evacuation of Chile miners 'likely to start Wednesday' "
BBC (October 9, 2010)

"Laurence Golborne: 'We are planning the process of rescue to start around this Wednesday... and should last for two days'

"The evacuation of 33 miners trapped underground in Chile is likely to start on Wednesday, the country's mining minister has said.

"Laurence Golborne was speaking after engineers had drilled through to the underground chamber where the miners are sheltering.

"He said the top part of the shaft needed a steel casing that would take about a day and a half to assemble.

"The miners have been trapped 700m (2,300ft) underground since 5 August.

"The drilling breakthrough came shortly after 0800 local time (1200 GMT) on Saturday, sparking celebrations across Chile...."

The BBC says that, at 66 days so far, this experience is "the longest suffered by a group of miners caught underground." Or, at least, the longest when the miners are likely to get rescued.

Getting them out will be a fairly complicated process - that will start with somebody else going down to join them:

"...The miners will then be brought up one by one in three groups: the fitter ones first, then the weaker ones, and finally the strongest of the group.

"But the evacuation will begin only after a doctor - who will be lowered to the chamber - has examined the miners...."

It sounds like the folks who are running this rescue effort are trying to be sensible about it. For example, the hole that's been bored down to the miners runs through exposed rock for most of its length - which doesn't seem very controversial, at first:
"Minister: Trapped Chilean Miners Expected to Be Pulled Out Wednesday"
Associated Press, via FOXNews (October 9, 2010)

"Chile's mining minister said Saturday night that the 33 miners trapped for more than two months will probably be pulled out starting Wednesday.

"That's because the rescue team has decided to reinforce less than 315 feet of the rescue shaft in steel pipe.

"The rest of the escape shaft is exposed rock, and the rescue team has decided it's strong enough to provide for a smooth ride for the miners' escape capsule.

"Mining Minister Laurence Golborne set the date after the shaft was inspected with a video camera Saturday following the completion of the hole earlier in the day -- a success that set off celebrations by the miners underground and by their families and rescue workers on the surface.

"Golborne and other government officials have insisted the decision on whether to reinforce the whole shaft would be purely technical, based on the evidence and the expertise of a team of eight geologists and mining engineers.

"The hole 'is in very good condition, and doesn't need to be cased completely,' Golborne said.

"He said 16 pipes, each six meters (nearly 20 feet) long, would be welded together and inserted into the top of the hole, which curves like a waterfall at first before becoming nearly vertical for most of its depth. The work would begin immediately, he said...."

Encasing the top 315 feet will keep the hole open, where it goes through fractured rock. The rest of the 2,000-odd foot shaft goes through solid rock. Given time, engineers and workers might be able to put a metal casing on the whole thing. Maybe.

"...While some miners' families wanted the entire shaft encased, some engineers involved in the rescue said the risk of the capsule getting jammed in the unreinforced hole was less than the risk of the pipes getting jammed and ruining their hard-won exit route...."

For the sake of everybody concerned, I hope that the rescue goes well. I think I can see how family members might feel like getting the entire hole sheathed in metal - it might seem more enclosed, sheltering, that way. On the other hand, it's probably best that the folks who are making decisions continue to do so based on "technical" considerations.

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