Roger Johns drove through four security checkpoints to reach the drill site.
He saw the family members’ faces when he passed. They lived in the tent city named Camp Hope.
“It’s a pretty emotional deal. You drove that road every day, and all those family members are there, greeting you at the mine,” Johns said. “You drive by that hole (the miners) drove down the day the mine collapsed. You knew they were never going to come back out that hole.”
A mechanical engineer from Tuttle, Johns worked for more than two months as part of a large team of drilling engineers and service companies whose job entailed drilling a hole more than 600 meters into the earth to rescue the 33 Chilean miners trapped in a gold and copper mine on Aug. 5.
The miners were rescued on Oct. 6 after spending 69 days in a hot, dark, humid space roughly the size of an average American classroom.
The watching world needed a miracle, and Johns helped deliver.
South American nightmare
The mine is situated far outside the coastal town of Copiapo in the southern Andes Mountains, 500 miles north of the country’s capital, Santiago.
According to a Chilean government news release on Aug. 23: “Feelings of dread turned into an outpouring of joy across Chile yesterday as the country’s President, Sebastian Piñera, held a note sent up from the mine “¦ where 33 miners have been trapped for 17 days. ‘All 33 of us are OK, in the refuge’ read the handwritten letter.”
There had been no contact with the men since the mine’s collapse.
On the day of the accident, the miners drove 45 minutes to the bottom of the 120-year-old mine. Its chief product was copper ore, which, when processed, yielded gold as a byproduct.
As the mine collapsed, the miners moved to a safe area stocked with emergency supplies. There, the men turned on their truck lights for 15 minutes a day and each subsisted on two bites of tuna, a bit of peach, one cracker and a swallow of milk every other day.
Rescue workers drilled holes in the earth searching for the miners. Sometimes the men could hear the drill bit foraging in the rock.
“It was like being trapped on a desert island and seeing a ship go by but not being able to get their attention,” Johns said.
Chile’s state-owned mining company, Codelco, and the country’s oil company, ENAP, instantly organized a massive rescue operation.
Johns, director of drilling technology for Allis-Chalmers Energy Inc., a Houston-based company that has an Oklahoma City office, had recently spoken at a symposium at the University of Chile. He works in international relations and was called to help drill one of three rescue holes.
Johns and his team worked on Plan C. Using an oilfield rig and high-volume compressed air, Johns said Plan C quickly reached a depth of 520 meters before being halted about 80 meters away from the miners’ cavity for safety reasons.
“Plan C became the secondary recovery hole in the event something went wrong with the primary hole,” he said. “This was my primary involvement and rapidly approached the progress of Plan B using oil field technology.”
The miners were eventually pulled from Plan B, drilled by Kansas City-based Layne Christensen, a 622-meter shaft. Plan B became the primary recovery hole as it progressed the fastest and started some four weeks earlier than Plan C, Johns said.
All three holes were created using directional drilling because the mine was shaped roughly like a corkscrew, with equipment, steel and electrical lines inside the mine all posing threats to progress.
“The drilling challenge was, obviously, not hitting anything,” Johns said. “You could drill into something you can’t drill past, and then you’d have to start over.”
Johns said he did not work on the rescue aspect of the operation nor had any direct contact with the miners.
Johns said he expects the incident will help change how the world approaches safety in mining.
“I think they’ll have a recovery hole, or vent hole, drilled in advance,” he said. “Mining is highly regulated, but it’s still an incredibly dangerous thing.”
Although his experience in Chile was “hellish emotional,” Johns said he took pride in being part of the rescue operation.
“God forbid it ever happens again,” he said.
top Three drilling operations were used to reach the 33 trapped Chilean miners. Plan C, the one local engineer Roger Johns coordinated, is shown in the foreground. Plan B, the one the miners were eventually pulled from, is pictured on the ridge behind Plan C, while Plan A sits on top of the hill on the left. Photo/Roger Johns
middle A view of Camp Hope. Photo/Roger Johns
bottom Roger Johns. Photo/Brendan Hoover