Chile brings 3rd drill to rescue trapped miners; New US bit to fix smashed 2nd drill

SAN JOSE MINE, Chile (AP) — Chile is sparing no expense to rescue its 33 trapped miners, mounting three separate drilling efforts to carve escape tunnels through nearly a half-mile of solid rock and collapsed mine shafts. The latest — an oil-well drill so big it takes 40 trucks to carry it — began arriving Friday.

The drill will be nearly 150 feet (45 meters) tall when assembled at the gold and copper mine where the main shaft collapsed Aug. 5. Its huge size has required rescuers to level rocks and lay a concrete platform over an area nearly the size of a football field on the hilltop, where only a dozen trucks at a time have room to unload their cargo.

Relatives of the miners — now stuck underground for 36 days — applauded the caravan's arrival, waving Chilean flags as the trucks rolled past their tents, known as "Camp Hope." The government also has established a 24/7 presence at the mine, providing families with food, shelter and support in the hot days and frigid nights of their Atacama desert vigil.

The oil drill is the government's Plan C, joining two mining-industry drills that have been carving other escape holes since last week. Just building its platform is taking two weeks.

Used by the country's state oil company in northern Chile, it drills the fastest of the three, and is capable of reaching the miners in 45 days after it becomes operational. But its power also increases the risk of rockfalls, so rescuers plan to aim it for the very bottom of the mine, some distance away from the other two efforts, which are aimed closer to the miners' refuge.

Meanwhile, Plan B suffered setbacks when the second drill struck an iron support beam for a mine shaft at 880 feet (268 meters), destroying a drill bit. Engineers have had to lower magnets down the shaft to recover the broken metal, said a governnment official who insisting on speaking anonymously becuse she was not authorized to talk with the news media.

A replacement drill part was rushed from the United States, and Andre Sougarret, a Codelco mining company engineer overseeing the effort, estimated that it would be operating by late Friday.

At roughly $2,000 a yard (meter), the three drilling efforts alone could cost an estimated $4.2 million or more, and the overall rescue effort will be much more costly once all the other government efforts to support the miners are included.

For now, the costs are largely being borne by the state-owned Codelco copper company and Enap oil company, as well as private firms: the La Escondida and Ines de Collahuasi copper companies, and drilling companies and their operators.

It remains to be seen if the government will compensate these firms, and the presidency has avoided making any public cost estimates. Both Finance Minister Felipe Larrain and Mining Minister Laurence Golborne have said that no cost evaluations have been conducted.

Diego Hernandez, Codelco's presidentm, said that "it's not the time" to estimate costs, adding that the company's only concern now is getting the miners out as soon as possible.

Codelco can afford the rescue in any case. On Friday, it reported earnings of $2.5 billion in the first half of 2010 thanks to higher global copper prices. That was about 3½ times its profit during the same period last year.


Associated Press Writer Federico Quilodran contributed to this report.