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The Depths of Faith

12/1/2010

Shari Biediger

Gregory E. Hall, president of Drillers Supply International, who was the contractor and coordinator for the rescue of 33 miners trapped in a mine in Copiapo, Chile. (Photo by Eric Kayne)

In the days following the Aug. 5 collapse of northern Chile's San José copper and gold mine, rescuers and the families of the 33 missing miners tried not to lose hope. Yet, they knew that no human being, if he even survived the collapse, could survive very long without food and water.

Then, on day 17, rescuers found a rudimentary note secured by tape to the tip of an exploratory drill bit, revealing that all 33 miners were indeed alive. Following the discovery, Greg Hall's engineering support team packed up and returned to their factory in northern Chile.

"We thought the job was done. We thought they may be able to find a duct to get them out," recalled Hall, a 25-year veteran of the drilling industry and owner of the Chilean-based manufacturing and consulting firm Drillers Supply S.A.

Yet, it became apparent over the following week that all paths out of the mine were blocked. Hall, a member of Anton J. Frank Council 8771, began working from his office in Houston on a plan to continue the rescue.

"I knew of only two drill rigs in the entire country that were minimally large enough to do the job," Hall explained, adding that the power and vibration of such a large drill would present significant risks to the men trapped 2,300 feet below ground.

"I was concerned about causing another landslide like the one the miners got trapped by in the first place," he said.

Then, a phone call from an acquaintance put him in touch with representatives from Center Rock, a manufacturing company in Pennsylvania. They believed their specialized down-the-hole drilling hammers could do the job, but could not get the attention of anyone in Chile.

Collaborating with Center Rock and several other companies, Hall then put together the best team he could find. What became known as "Plan B" was soon accepted and initiated, thanks to the reputation of Hall's business and his government relationships in Chile.

"We realized quickly that this would be a very high-profile, high-pressure job," Hall said. "We were not drilling for gold; we were drilling for people."

Knowing the job would be technically, emotionally and politically complex, Hall challenged the engineers on his team by asking, "What could you put up with if you were drilling to get your son out?"

From the start, Hall's assessment of the job's difficulty proved correct. The depth, the unstable ground, the hardness of the rock, and the twists and turns of the borehole all combined to make the operation appear impossible to every drilling expert.

"If I was to sit back and think about the entire scope of the operation, I would have just said, 'Forget it,'" added Hall.

Instead, the team concentrated on drilling one meter at a time. And as the days went on, it became more apparent that the operation was guided by divine providence. Hall was moved by the deep faith of the miners and how the men requested religious items such as rosaries and Bibles.

On two separate occasions when the drill became "hopelessly stuck" and would not move, Hall began to pray.

"I prayed that God would send the angels to free the hammer bit," he said. "And in both cases, we got some wiggle room, and we were able to continue the process. That was another miracle."

Hall, who is preparing to be ordained a permanent deacon next year, was also struck by the biblical significance of the number 33. The age of Jesus when he was crucified, buried and rose again, happened to correspond to the number of miners, the number of days of drilling, and even the number of years that the miners' spiritual adviser, who was trapped with them, had worked in mining.

The most powerful source of spiritual comfort for Hall, however, was recognizing that the same God present throughout salvation history was now with them in the Chilean desert. Ultimately, Hall believes God drilled the hole that freed the miners and that he merely "had a good seat" for the effort.

Hall and his team left the site just before the miners were freed, because they wanted to give the miners and their families the space to reconnect and celebrate. Instead, they watched the final rescue on TV from their homes and hotel rooms as the miners emerged from the hole one by one. And though they did not relax until the last man emerged on Oct. 13, Hall said that seeing the first man rescued, Florencio Avalos, was particularly meaningful.

"He was the one we had the most contact with when they were in the hole," said Hall. "He was always asking us, 'When are you going to get me out?'"

The experience made Hall all the more grateful for the life he shares with his wife, Angelica, and their three children, ages 26, 21 and 18.

"He is an amazing father and a great man and kind of like a superhero to me," said Greg Hall Jr. "And I say that with all due respect because I tell him, 'You own three companies, you are becoming a deacon and you just saved the lives of 33 people. You need to leave something for me to do!'"

Earlier this year, when Greg Hall Jr. asked his father how he could better give himself in service to others, Hall's encouragement prompted his son to join the Knights of Columbus.

The senior Hall also volunteers his time with a prison ministry and tells inmates that, no matter what they have done in the past, God can work miracles through them. Most miracles, he said, are simply not as public as the Chilean rescue.

"Miracles happen all the time," Hall said. "But for some reason, God chose to have this miracle televised all over the world."

 

 

Shari Biediger works as a writer and communication specialist in San Antonio.