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Drilling could resume in Plan B to rescue miners, government says

By Patrick Oppmann, CNN
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Drilling difficulties at mine site
  • NEW: Engineer says all the pieces of the drill bit have been removed
  • NEW: The Plan A operation reached a depth of 283 meters Tuesday
  • A rescue crew member, however, says it's not certain all the pieces are out
  • Tuesday is Day 40 for the miners

Copiapo, Chile (CNN) -- Officials working to free 33 trapped miners in a collapsed Chilean mine said Tuesday they had cleared a drilling hole that was blocked by a shattered drill bit.

Engineer Rene Aguilar said all the pieces of the broken drill bit that were in the hole drilled by the Plan B operation had been removed, and drilling could begin again soon.

The Plan B drill is widening a narrow hole drilled when rescuers first searched for the miners after the mine collapsed August 5. That drill was making the fastest progress of the other rescue operations -- Plan A and Plan C -- when it hit an obstruction, possibly a reinforcement beam, at a depth of 268 meters (879 feet).

"This bit was upside down and we used a spider ... to pull it out," Aguilar said, holding up the "nose" of the bit that he said weighed about 12 kilograms (about 26 pounds).

Video: Trapped miners' routines

"Spiders" are specially designed claws that were made to pull out the broken drill pieces.

A second customized bit was expected to arrive later Tuesday, and Aguilar said a camera was being lowered into the hole to check it out before drilling restarts.

But a rescue crew member who is not authorized to speak to the media said workers are not certain all the pieces of the drill bit have been pulled out.

"We're not out of the woods yet, there may be some steel down there," the crew member said.

Meanwhile, the Plan A drill -- the only drill currently operating at the mine -- reached a depth of 283 meters (928 feet) Tuesday, Aguilar said. The Plan C oil platform drill was under construction and about 70 percent finished. Drilling in that operation, which is expected to go faster than the other two, will likely begin September 20, Aguilar said.

The miners are trapped in a safety chamber, 2,300 feet underground. Officials have acknowledged that it could be November before they're freed.

Brandon Fisher, whose Pennsylvania-based company Center Rock Inc. is rushing the replacement bit for Plan B to the site, described what happened when the drill hit the beam.

"All of a sudden, the penetration rate stopped, the drill string torqued up violently, and we tried to pull off bottom," he said Monday. "We were hung in the hole -- we worked at that for a while, and the bit passed out of that obstruction and then out of the hole.

"At that point in time, we really didn't know what the problem was until we cleared the rotary table and brought it back to surface."

A power line dropped down to the men Sunday will allow them to install electrical lights in their safety chamber, officials said. They also were granted a long-standing request for cigarettes. Officials are sending down two packs a day to be split among the miners who smoke, Chilean Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said.

Cigarettes were among the first requests made by some of the miners, but they were instead supplied with nicotine patches and gum. Upgrades made to ventilation in the mine led officials to decide to allow them to smoke, Golborne said.

CNN's Patrick Oppmann in Copiapo contributed to this report.

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