Deacon candidate who helped Chilean miners describes rescue

Greg and Angie Hall2CNA US Catholic News 10 14 1 Photo courtesy of Greg and Angelica Hall

On Oct. 13, Greg Hall's prayers were answered. For more than two months of sleepless nights, the rock-drilling expert and deacon-in-training had been working to save the Chilean miners trapped in the San Jose Mine. The day after all 33 men emerged safely, Hall told CNA about the faith and hope he brought to a rescue operation many considered impossible.

Drillers Supply International, the company Greg Hall co-owns with his wife Angelica, has operated a Chilean branch for almost two decades, manufacturing parts for drilling hundreds or thousands of feet underground. When the Copiapó mine collapsed on Aug. 5, several of its customers initially worked “to find the miners, because nobody knew where they were.”

But Hall's clients couldn't drill deep enough to find them. “So they called my company to bring out all the equipment – which we make -- to help all five rigs be able to go down to 800 meters and start punching holes in the ground.”

“We did that for 17 days, and we actually thought the miners were dead.” Then, on Aug. 22, “(when) I was getting ready to go to Mass at 7 a.m., one of my guys called me and said: 'Greg, we think we hit a void, and we think we hear some banging on the drill pipe'. We pulled the pipe up, and in between the hammer and the drill pipe was a note … saying 'All 33 of us are alive'.”

Hall thought his involvement had ended, but it was just beginning. “About two weeks later the mining minister contacted us, and said that all the plans that they had were calling for bringing the miners out at the end of this year or maybe at the start of next year.”

His crew said they could do the job in six weeks. “About 80 percent of the people laughed at us,” Hall recounted, “but the other 20 percent were the ones who made the decision.”

“The path we had to follow came perilously close to old mine shafts,” Hall explained, while “the ground conditions and the size of the diameter we were going to be drilling” made for technical dangers. “The miners were trapped in the first place due to a landslide. There was a very, very real possibility that … we could cause another slide.”

Hall began to think of the trapped miners as his own family members. He urged his crew members to “think about those guys as if they're your son or your brother. Don't think about them as just some nameless miners. What would you do if that was your son down there?”

But when drilling began, his approach had to change. “During the actual drilling, I had to be very careful not to get too emotionally attached.” In communicating with the miners, he “kept it very, very technical” and  “wouldn't go to Camp Esperanza and see the families-- because I was petrified that I would make a decision based on emotion.”

The 17 days of drilling took steel nerves, and strong faith. Hall highlighted “one particular time when we were stuck, and really, I had no more answers. I was standing on the drill rig, and there really wasn't anything, technically, we were able to do. So I just started praying.”

The drill bit eventually loosened, and the team continued work on what Hall said was “the hardest job I've ever been on in my 25 years, by far.” One driller, Jeff Ward, regularly worked 12 hour shifts, and one 24 hour shift near the end. “We had a great team of a lot of people that really worked tirelessly,” Hall said, describing how they “went days without sleep.”

Explaining how his faith continually “shaped this job,” Hall recalled the day he left his parish in Houston, Texas to travel to the mine. “Our priest called me up on the altar ... we had probably over a thousand people. He told them that I was leaving right after Mass to go to Chile, and what we were going, and had them pray for us.

“And I can guarantee you, I could feel that prayer while I was on the drill site.”

Experts and colleagues called the project “impossible”-- both before and after its completion. One told him, when the operation was over: “There is no way you could have drilled that hole. God drilled that hole!”

Hall, an acolyte at Christ the Redeemer Catholic Church who hopes to be ordained a deacon next February, said the rescue operation's success was not simply improbable, but miraculous. “I had a real experience of seeing God's work among his people,” he reflected. “I know there are miracles. But you know what? Now everybody knows.”

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