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Published: 10/14/2010

Pa. firm provided drill to reach Chilean miners

BY SEAN D. HAMILL
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

PITTSBURGH - Looking tanned, a bit tired, and happy to be back, members of the Somerset County, Pennsylvania, company that provided the drill that broke through to 33 miners trapped underground in Chile this past weekend returned home Tuesday.

Brandon Fisher, the owner of Center Rock Inc. of Berlin, Pa.; his wife, Julie, the company's sales director; and Richard Soppe, director of construction and mining tools, first arrived at Pittsburgh International Airport. They briefly recounted tales of endless days, harsh conditions, moments of dejection and then, finally, elation.

"When this drill came through the roof" to where the miners were Saturday, said Mr. Soppe, "that was something. We were jumping up and down above ground and the miners were jumping up and down below ground."

It more than made up for the language barriers, broken equipment, and illness they encountered during the 37 nonstop days he and Mr. Soppe spent in Chile drilling the 2,000-foot hole, Mr. Fisher said.

"It was an exciting time, to say the least," Mr. Fisher said. "That was quite an adventure."

Ms. Fisher joined them two-and-a-half weeks ago to help deal with the crush of media - "And just for morale and keeping Richard and I sane," Mr. Fisher said.

Noting they were just married in June, Ms. Fisher said with a laugh about her 17 days there that left all of them with chest colds: "Yeah, that was our honeymoon."

Though the first of the miners - trapped underground for more than two months - came to the surface Tuesday night, Mr. Fisher said they decided they should leave to get out of the way.

"Everyone wanted to be there who drilled that hole," he said. "But we had to do the right thing and back off."

The ordeal for them started Aug. 22, when a bore hole first reached the miners.

What piqued the interest of Mr. Fisher, 38, and Mr. Soppe, 58, though, was when Chilean officials said it would take until Christmas to rescue the miners, who were trapped in the mine Aug. 5 when part of it collapsed.

"We thought we could go a lot faster than that," said Mr. Soppe, who lives in Germantown, Wis.

They started researching the geology of the region - primarily hard volcanic rock - "and the more we found out about it, the more confident we felt about our equipment," Mr. Fisher said.

Mr. Soppe hired Mr. Fisher as an 18-year-old to work for a company he was employed by at the time. After staying in touch over the years, Mr. Fisher returned the favor three years ago and hired Mr. Soppe.

Mr. Fisher's company helped rescue nine miners at the Quecreek Mine in Somerset County in 2002 by fishing out some broken equipment in the rescue hole that was being drilled.

And living in Somerset County, "Mining is close to a lot of our hearts."

Because of that and the prior experience at Quecreek, "I don't know how we could have slept knowing we had the technology to help" in Chile, Mr. Fisher said.

They began trying to convince people in Chile that they really could help, firing off e-mails and phone calls, and enlisting the support of their drilling equipment dealer in Chile.

The Chilean government knew about Quecreek, and knowing Mr. Fisher was involved in that "definitely helped," Mr. Fisher said.

They proposed using their LP Drill, a four-hammer drill that Mr. Fisher and Mr. Soppe developed that specializes in drilling through hard rock.

After they got the OK from the Chilean government, they started drilling, with the help of a Chilean and American rig crew, on Sept. 5.

The drilling continued unabated, except when their drill broke and they had to spend a day fishing parts out of the hole.

Following the path of a 5-inch bore hole that had been drilled to reach the miners, they cut that into a 12-inch hole by Sept. 17 and then widened it into a 26-inch hole - big enough for a rescue capsule.

Though a rig team was on the site managing the drill, "no one knew our system," Mr. Fisher said.

As a result, with rare exception, he and Mr. Soppe were there around-the-clock, typically going three or four days with no sleep.

At one point, as they were trying to do their ongoing measurement of how deep the hole was by counting every six meters, "neither of us could add six and six together," Mr. Soppe recalled.

"You'd fall asleep standing in your boots," Mr. Fisher said.

As they left the airport to return to their families, Mr. Soppe said he was looking forward to watching the miners return above ground on television.

"I just want to sit back, watch that, and do nothing for a couple days," he said.

Mr. Fisher said that in addition to seeing his three young children, he intended to keep working on a plan he first thought of in the wake of Quecreek to develop a national rapid-response drilling team.

"What we learned from Quecreek was: We weren't ready," he said. "We need to be next time."

Mr. Fisher said that while he was prepared to pick up the cost of his work and expenses, the Chilean government had promised to pay him, though it hasn't happened yet and neither man took the job expecting to be reimbursed.

"I've worked on a lot of projects in my 36 years in the field," Mr. Soppe said, "all of them about money. This one was about life."

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Sean D. Hamill is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.

Contact Sean D. Hamill at:

412-263-2579.



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