Chile has done a remarkable job of preparing to rescue 33 miners trapped a half-mile underground, but many risks remain simply because never before has anyone tried to rescue miners from such depths, a U.S. mine safety expert said Tuesday.
Davitt McAteer, who led the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration, laid out the risks in an Associated Press interview: A miner could get claustrophobic and do something that damages the capsule. Or a rock could fall and wedge it in the shaft. Or the cable could get hung up. Or the rig that pulls the cable could overheat.
"It's not an elevator shaft. It's got twists and turns and that can cause problems with the cable," McAteer told the AP by telephone. "We're talking about 2,000 feet (deep) and it's uncharted territory."
McAteer said he gave "very high marks" to the Chilean rescue team for creating lowered expectations by saying that it might take until Christmas to rescue the men -- and then consistently delivering rescue preparations ahead of time.
"Second, they have had very few technical problems. Their drilling rigs have performed extremely well," he said.
And finally, "they've been lucky. You can be good and you can be lucky. And they've been good AND lucky."
But these operations can "turn on a dime," worried McAteer, who is currently vice president of Wheeling Jesuit University and leading the Upper Big Branch mine disaster investigation in West Virginia. "Knock on wood that this luck holds out for the next 33 hours."
Chile's rescue effort also got support Tuesday from U.S. President Barack Obama.
"While that rescue is far from over and difficult work remains, we pray that by God's grace, the miners will be able to emerge safely and return to their families soon," Obama said.
Obama also said he's "proud of all of the Americans who have been working with our Chilean friends on the ground to do everything that we can to bring these miners home."
Associated Press Writer Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this story.