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Feeling a bond, engineering alumnus helps free Chilean miners

Bill Maloney ’80, stands in front of a Schramm T130 rig used to help rescue the trapped Chilean miners. The rig is owned by Geotec Boyles Bros. S.A., a Chilean drilling company.

Bill Maloney '80 found it difficult to unwind when he and his wife drove to Cape May, N.J., for a vacation in August.

Nothing could take his mind off the fate of the 33 Chilean miners who had been buried 2,100 feet below the earth’s surface when their mine caved in above them Aug. 5.

Maloney, who earned a B.S. in industrial engineering from Lehigh 30 years ago, tried to relax with his wife and in-laws, but couldn’t.

A side trip to Ocean City to spend time on a crab boat failed to distract him.

Maloney had never been to Chile, but he had spent his career drilling ventilation shafts in coal mines and he felt a bond with the trapped miners.

When he heard officials predict the miners might not be rescued before Christmas, he felt called.

“I was going nuts,” Maloney says. “I was on the hand-held all day long in the crab boat. It was raining. I e-mailed friends of mine who were working in Chile. They put me in touch with people who were drilling holes at the site.”

Maloney, owner of Drill Leader Consulting in Morgantown, W.Va., refused to believe it should take four months to drill a hole through the earth to rescue the Chilean miners. A few days later, he heard that his friend Brandon Fisher, president of Center Rock Inc., a drilling technology company in Berlin, Pa., was also working on a plan to drill a hole more quickly.

Maloney and Fisher put their heads together, and with help from many others, came up with an idea.

Plan B and the 'down the hole hammer'

That idea, which came to be known as Plan B, was one of three rescue attempts approved by the Chilean government. It used “down the hole (DTH) hammers”—a heavy steel piston with a carbide and diamond-impregnated bit that vibrates up to 1,500 times a minute and turns as it pounds. The technology was better suited than conventional drill bits, Maloney says, to bore through the extremely hard, abrasive quartzite and silica rock at the San Jose mine, and to do so starting at an 11-degree angle.

Maloney and Fisher flew to Chile on Sept. 3 and arrived at the rescue site the next day. Timely planning and good fortune enabled them to begin drilling Sept. 5. Center Rock Inc. had fabricated the drilling equipment in days instead of the weeks usually required, and UPS shipped it for free. Another Pennsylvania company, Schramm Inc. of West Chester, had provided drilling rigs.

A Chilean drill team had already drilled 5.5-inch holes to enable air and supplies to reach the trapped miners. The Plan B team had to “ream,” or enlarge, a similar hole twice—first to 12 inches with a DTH hammer to achieve stability and allow cuttings to fall into the mine opening, and then to 28 inches using Center Rock’s LP (low-profile) drill with four hammers in a barrel reamer assembly.

The team hit a snag at a depth of about 800 feet when its 12-inch DTH hammer struck a support bolt from a nearby mine ramp, causing a bit to shear off. It took a week to remove the pieces of broken bit from the hole with various fishing tools before the team could resume drilling.

“No one had ever tried an LP drill like ours at the angle we encountered for the distance we had to go,” Maloney says. “The rock in the top of the hole was fractured, not stable. It was really tricky to keep the reamer inside the 12-inch hole and gravity was working against us in the angled hole.”

After working out the kinks, the drillers reached peak boring speeds of 20 feet-per-hour reaming the 12-inch hole and just over 6 feet-per-hour widening the hole to 28 inches. The team, which counted 75 members, mostly Chilean, worked in shifts around the clock. They lost and wore out numerous drill bits, but reached the mine workshop at 8:05 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 9.

Three days later, the first miner emerged safely in a capsule that the Chilean government dubbed “the Phoenix.” A little more than a day later, 70 days after they were imprisoned in the mine, all 33 miners had been raised to the earth’s surface, where they were embraced by family members and greeted by Chile’s president, Sebastián Piñera.

‘I just had to go to Chile’

By now, Maloney had returned home to West Virginia. He had flown on Sept. 21 from Chile back to the United States a few days after reaming got started.

The rescue of the Chilean miners was one of the most daunting in history—never before had men survived after being trapped so long in the earth.

But Maloney never doubted the ultimate success of the Plan B mission.

“I had a good feeling,” he says. “We all had a good feeling. I just felt that we were all there for a reason, and that God was watching over us.”

Maloney watched on TV as the miners began to emerge from the earth.

“I could understand the emotions of the men and their families. All of us rescuers felt the same way.”

Maloney did not have much contact with the families of the miners while he was in Chile. One day, however, CNN asked him and his team members to take part in a media event.

“We got corraled for an interview outside the gate where the family members were waiting. People hugged us. I didn’t know their names. But I saw one woman again on TV when her husband was coming out of the capsule. I’ll never forget that.”

Maloney admits to being an academic late-bloomer as an undergraduate at Lehigh. He played on the varsity hockey team (he has established an endowment to support the program, which is now a club sport), and he enjoyed campus social life so much that he had to complete 54 credits in his final 12 months of study to graduate in four years.

His favorite professors were the late George Kane, chairman of the industrial engineering department, and Wally Richardson. The courses that have proven most useful in his career were metallurgy classes, especially one in nondestructive testing, taught by professor John Wood.

“Lehigh just trains your brain a little differently than other schools do. You learn things without realizing that you’re learning. You learn to think outside the box. You learn to think in a well-grounded way.”

Several years ago, Maloney sold his company, Shaft Drillers International, and signed a clause that limited his involvement in drilling mine shafts. He worked in developing some shallow oil reserves, but felt restless. Last summer, he applied to graduate school intending to earn a master’s degree. The Chilean mine disaster occurred as the opening day of classes approached.

“When you’re drilling shafts, just being around miners—there’s a bond in the industry. When the accident happened, I felt terrible. I told myself I could do something about it and get the men out faster. I just had to go to Chile.”

Bill Maloney '80 will recount his experiences with the Chilean mine rescue in a talk at 4:10 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 28, in Perella Auditorium at Rauch Business Center. The Lehigh campus community is invited to attend this lecture to hear Mr. Maloney's story from inside the rescue effort, and how experience, technical expertise, and compassion came together from halfway around the world and reached a half mile down.

Story by Kurt Pfitzer

Posted on Friday, October 15, 2010

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