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Cambrian grad hopes mine rescue story will shine light on crisis responders

Suzanne Bernier watched the coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and she saw death, devastation and destruction.
Suzanne Bernier and Brandon Fisher spoke to attendees at Cambrian’s Disaster Heroes event.

Suzanne Bernier watched the coverage of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and she saw death, devastation and destruction. When she landed on the ground in her role as a crisis management consultant, she quickly realized the reports had left something — or someone — out.

The next time you hear about a disaster, in the paper or on TV, Bernier wants you to do something that will brighten your outlook, just a little.

“Look for the helpers, make it a game,” said Bernier. “We’re so focused on seeing those bad images we forget to see the helpers.”

The graduate of Sudbury’s Cambrian College wrote a book about these helpers last year: Disaster Heroes: Invisible Champions of Help, Hope and Healing. One of her heroes recently spoke in Sudbury, and explained how he — a driller from Pennsylvania — wound up in Chile, on a mine rescue operation.

In August 2010, 33 miners were trapped beneath 2300 feet of rock at the San Jose Mine. The San Esteban Mining Company had a history of safety violations, and the men were presumed dead. But, the community would not give up hope.

“They had this hope that the guys had gotten safe,” said Brandon Fisher. Public support led to the federal government taking over the search, which started drilling exploratory holes.

After 17 days, their efforts were rewarded when a little note came up on the end of a drill bit: all 33 miners were alive and well. It took another 52 days before the miners made it to the surface.

When disaster struck, Fisher was doing business as usual in Pennsylvania, running his drilling company, Center Rock. But once news spread stateside that 33 miners had been found alive after a Chilean mine collapse, but that they were still looking for a way to get them out, the driller jumped into action.

With no previous experience in the region, and no established network, Fisher and his crew headed south to turn a five-inch shaft down to the miners into a 28-inch hole through which to pull them. They were Plan B – Plan A could have taken until Christmas.

His team faced broken drilling equipment, having to navigate twisted shafts down to the miners, and barriers stronger than rock, including roof beams and wiring around the refuge sheltering the men.

“Nothing’s impossible, but it was very close to it,” said Fisher. “Having to do all of our maintenance and work on site, it was like turning an engine out on your vehicle and trying to reassemble it right there.”

No one was ready for the Chilean disaster, but the unique cooperation of individuals across different industries resulted in the eventual solution, said Fisher.

Equipment manufacturers turned out specialized drill bits for them in 36 hours, a process that usually takes weeks.

UPS donated their transport services to get over 50,000 pounds of equipment down to Chile, a service valued at over $300,000.

A Plan C involving an old oil rig was being developed just in case Plan B fell through, but finally, after 39 days of drilling, Fisher’s team got through to the men underground.

“I can’t put into words how we felt — out there for 39 days, problem after problem,” said Fisher. “It was such a sense of relief. You can hear these bits coming for hours and hours, I can only imagine what they were feeling, hoping it would hit.”