NASA Chilean Miners Rescue
Oral History Project
Edited Oral History Transcript
Christopher J. Harris
Interviewed by Rebecca Wright
Washington, D.C. – 2 August 2011
is August 2, 2011. This oral history is being conducted with Christopher
Harris in Washington, D.C., for the NASA Headquarters History Office.
Interviewer is Rebecca Wright, with Jennifer Ross-Nazzal. The interview
is part of a series to capture knowledge about NASA’s participation
in the 2010 rescue of thirty-three Chilean miners. Mr. Harris is a
member of the U.S. Department of State who served as the Chile Desk
Officer during the time of this historic event.
We’d like for you, if you would, please, to begin today by sharing
with us how you got involved and how the State Department got involved
and, as well, NASA.
you for inviting me. I guess I’ll start with a little bit of
context. I’ve been with the Foreign Service mostly serving abroad
as a U.S. diplomat for about twelve years now, a bunch of different
places, including Guatemala, was out in Russia, Armenia, Afghanistan,
Serbia, then in the NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] Operations
Office, and then in Chile working on the Chile desk.
The State Department’s primary role when it’s back in
D.C. is to work with the embassies of the countries that we cover,
to work as a focal point for any policy discussion or any communication,
by and large, that’s policy communication with foreign governments.
As a desk officer in the State Department, in the case of Chile, because
it’s a medium-sized to smaller country, there’s just me,
and then if someone else in the U.S. Government [USG] has a question
about most aspects of Chile, I would be the first point of contact.
I’m also usually the first point of contact for the Chilean
Government if they are looking for advice or assistance or information
from the U.S. Government. That’s how this all started. We have
a very close relationship with the Chilean Government. It’s
a highly functional country with excellent governance. It actually
has in the past—and I think will continue this year—to
rate higher on the Transparency International scores than the U.S.
The reason why I’m saying that is the nature of our relationship
with Chile is much more of a cooperative partnership than a purveyor
of aid or something along those lines.
That being said, in early 2010 in February, Chile suffered one of
the largest earthquakes on record. We already had a multifaceted relationship
in the sense that we had many, many different avenues in which we
were cooperating with both the Chilean Government itself and with
NGOs [non-governmental organizations] and with civil society. Then
the earthquake happened, and a lot of those avenues which were already
in place, the cooperation was deepened, contacts were deepened, and
the level of trust between both our governments and between especially
those who were working on emergency preparation and response were
all that much more improved and deepened. That’s the context
for August of 2010 when the Chile mine accident occurred.
It was particularly interesting for me, because the day that the mine
collapse was reported was my first day in the office. I was coming
from the European Office for Regional Political-Military Affairs,
so I was working NATO operations. I actually had just been working
on the Pakistan flood relief, so in some senses I was already geared
up. I was coming directly from a bunch of meetings on Pakistan flood
relief to my first day in the office. I didn’t have email; I
didn’t know my Chilean contacts yet; I barely had any phone
numbers to call, and the news flashes across the screen that this
collapse has happened and that the Chilean Government is very personally
I don’t remember if it was exactly the first day, but it was
in the first day or two that I received a call from the Chilean Embassy,
from their Ambassador, and also talked to their DCM [Deputy Chief
of Mission], saying, “We already have a lot of these connections
in place from the earthquake. Thank you so much for your assistance
during that time. We’re looking at this situation. Let’s
think about ways in which we could cooperate and use some of your
skills to help.”
I think the idea of NASA came about because there had been—and
I’m sure you’ve heard this more from [NASA] Headquarters
folks, but it came about because we already had a relationship working
with Easter Island as an alternate landing site for our [Space] Shuttles.
We had some interaction with the Chilean Space Agency, which is quite
a small operation—we’re talking about a handful of people,
pretty much—on a day-to-day basis, but there still was some
The Ambassador was talking about areas in which we could cooperate
and mentioned that they had this guy from the Chilean Space Agency
who within the last year had been at a conference with someone from
NASA and mentioned the concept of NASA as one of the areas for cooperation.
I jumped at that, and said, “Of course.” I’m actually
a bit proud of being able to make those connections pretty quickly;
to say, “Of course,” for remote medical care, engineering
expertise, that type of stuff.
At that point there was a parallel or even a three-lane approach in
getting NASA starting to spin up a bit as far as how it could cooperate.
I had sent over a note, I think to a general contact phone number
or email, saying, “Hey, can I talk to somebody at NASA?”
The Chilean Space Agency had had a couple of emails and had sent some
emails. I believe also the Chilean Embassy had reached out to NASA
The first interaction was with Al [Albert] Condes, which I’m
not sure in response to which of those emails or phone calls. One
of the fun parts about the job as a desk officer is even as a mid-level
officer, you’re the only game in town. Al’s a great guy,
and we established a quick rapport, but for me to get a call from
a deputy administrator from another agency is a usual part of our
day, but I was conscious of rank, and I think that one of the testaments
to both NASA and to how this all worked out is how quickly we developed
a team. “Let’s get the job done. Let’s work through
the problems,” without a lot of the formalities that can take
place in interagency cooperation. There was any number of papers and
memos and agreements that we had to push through to get it going,
but it was all done within a very collegial atmosphere, and I credit
NASA in a big way for that, because that can slow our cooperation
with other agencies.
Just to give a little background, before we started running with NASA—and
I know that’s a primary interest for this interview session—we
were working with a lot of other agencies. Almost immediately in some
type of natural disaster, or in this case it wasn’t quite a
natural disaster, but this type of disaster, we’re talking to
USAID [U.S. Agency for International Development], which is really
our partner agency or almost one body with two heads in the sense
that the State Department and USAID work very, very closely together
and are in many ways the same department or agency. They have the
overseas office, OFDA, Overseas Foreign Disaster Assistance Office.
So I was in contact with them right away.
I had been reaching out to Department of Defense [DoD] almost immediately
because of their heavy-lift capabilities. We work with them a lot
if we need to move something large. I don’t know what it might
be, but almost immediately if we think we might be sending, we’re
talking to the Department of Defense about possibly using some of
their planes. That came into play further on.
We ended up talking to the Department of the Interior and Department
of Labor, because of mining expertise, pretty quickly, and as things
developed, we talked to the National Institutes of Health. We also
got calls from state mining agencies, from public-private entities
like the lobbying groups for the mining industry. There were a lot
of phone calls and a lot of other conversations going on which NASA
started to plug into. I think, for the most part, we were working
pretty much directly with them, with a little bit of DoD involvement
when we were talking about possibly moving equipment.
Again, another piece of context. The Chileans are mining experts.
They’re engineering experts. Actually, if there’s an area
where their higher education tends to send specialists abroad, it’s
in engineering. So when they came to us, they weren’t saying,
“How do we deal with mines? How do we deal with mine disasters
or collapses?” They were saying, “This is a unique circumstance.
We have thirty-three people trapped way far underground. None of our
normal procedures are working. We don’t know how long they’re
going to be down there. We need help in a very specific technical
area.” That’s where NASA comes in, remote medical care,
remote nutrition, things that a space program, of course, would develop
expertise in that other industries and other areas would not. I think
that’s a key point.
Are you talking to Chileans as well, or is this primarily from the
the U.S. side.
I would put in a plug. President [Miguel Juan Sebastián] Piñera
[Echenique] can be a difficult personality in that he’s very
much a billionaire CEO [Chief Executive Officer] and he likes to make
executive decisions. In this case that came very much to be a benefit
in that he saw a situation where his advisors were telling him that
he shouldn’t get involved, that the chance for the survival
was minimal, that it would be politically risky, because if he put
his face on this rescue and it didn’t go through, he would take
a political hit. He pushed that advice aside, became very quickly
personally involved in the rescue, mobilized all of Chile’s
substantial expertise in mining and rescue work, got a team up there
immediately, found the money beyond this relatively small company
that was involved in the mine and the mining operation itself—it
became very quickly apparent that they didn’t have the resources—and
got his Ministry of Mining.
It sets the stage for the rescue effort in the sense that the Chilean
Government deserves a lot of credit for very quickly responding to
a crisis and doing so at some political risk. Even by the time we’re
talking about how NASA can help, they have an operation starting,
they have people on the ground, they have medical professionals on
site; their engineers are working out ways to come up with a way to
Again, how the State Department works, I’m a State Department
Chile Desk Officer. We have a whole team of diplomats and experts
sitting in Santiago [Chile]. I don’t like to call myself a node
because I think of the Noid from Domino’s Pizza, but I’m
the node for that embassy. You have the Chilean Embassy here in Washington
and then you have the U.S. Embassy in Santiago, and I’m their
primary information source. As soon as all this stuff is happening,
I’m talking to them ninety times a day about what’s going
on on the ground and how we could potentially help the Chilean Government,
and they started talking to their counterparts in the Ministry of
Health, in the Ministry of Mining about how we could help.
What came out of this, while we’re also having conversations
here in Washington with NASA, is what they’re looking for is
this particular medical expertise and engineering expertise just because
they figure they don’t know exactly how the engineering would
plug in, but they know they need as much as they can get on the ground.
In a conversation with Al, I don’t know from which side it initiated,
he said it made the most sense to get a team down there as quickly
as we could, not to lead an effort, but to plug in as an important
new resource for the Chilean team that was already up and running
and had people on the ground and going.
Again to NASA’s credit, I don’t think there’s a
whole lot of previous precedence for NASA being used as the instrument
for, in this case, international “aid” is the wrong word,
but along those lines. We work with the Department of Justice, who
do police training; we work with USAID, of course, who runs the gamut
of disaster and food relief and long-term democracy-building. NASA
usually isn’t someone that we’re going to turn to as a
primary international aid organization or agency.
That was a little bit of the cobwebs. We said, “Okay, we want
to send a team. Okay. How do we do that?” We send people down
for our own—this is NASA—for their own needs, their own
cooperation, but usually not as a purely aid mission. Immediately
you start having things pop up, like the lawyers all start moving
and there’s talk about liability, and we have to run down visas
for everybody. There was a lot of work done in making sure that NASA
was comfortable with the idea of sending down a group. Again, to NASA’s
credit, it happened much quicker than I was anticipating. I was hoping
that we could turn it around in a couple of days. I don’t know
if Al gave you the time. It’s been about a year now. It seemed
like two or three days, but I’m sure it was probably something
like ten before we were able to get the team actually on a plane and
In preparation for the team landing, we have a political officer on
the ground in the embassy in Santiago who works on environmental science,
technology, and health. That’s her portfolio. We were lucky
enough to have someone who had just gone through all the coordination
for the earthquake response, so she was geared in. Basically what
we do is maintain contacts for things like this. We’re talking
to our Chilean counterparts all the time. I was able to talk to her,
and said, “Hey, we have this team coming down.” She immediately
had all the people in the Chilean Government lined up to talk about
how they would be received, what type of program they would have,
who they would meet with, and how they would plug into the rescue
We started going back and forth between her and the leadership of
the embassy and the Chilean ministries with dates, all the logistics,
dates, times, how they would get up to the mine site, where they would
stay, who would provide translation. These things that you don’t
necessarily think of can really—the translation issue, for example,
took a lot of time to figure out if the Chilean Government was going
to pay for a translator or provide a translator; if they were going
to fly him from Santiago and have someone meet up there. If they were
going to meet up there, you have to have a professional translator
in this case because you’re talking technical terms and medical
terms and that type of stuff.
I remember many conversations about who’s going to interpret,
where are we going to find someone with this level of interpretation.
There are a lot of people in Santiago that we use. Again, it’s
a highly educated, highly functional country, but we’re talking
about several hundred miles away, if not a thousand miles or whatever—Chile’s
super long—up in the middle of this little desert mining town.
There’s money for mining around, but it’s a lot more blue-collar
than a white-collar super professional translator. I remember that
being a sticking point that we worked through.
Also where they were going to stay, because all the hotels and everything
up in Copiapó, again, not a big place. Everything was slammed.
So, making sure that the Chilean Government could figure out where
they would be housed. The guys were great. They said, “A tent’s
fine,” but you need to know before you put them on a plane that
they’re not going to show up and there’s going to be everybody
running around trying to figure out what to do with them. That’s
the worst-case scenario. Then we also had to get a special flight
set up. Who was going to go with them?
We had them come down to Santiago. They’re received at the embassy.
The embassy, for any type of direct government visit, really works
as the logistics space. There’s a U.S. diplomat, usually a political
officer, someone else from the embassy who sets up their meeting schedule.
This goes for any official trip. We do it all the time for congressmen
and other people, but it’s fun to do it for a more practical,
I guess, event. Even when the team got to Santiago, they had someone
who was assigned to them. We also had a press officer who was working
with them closely because of the extreme press interests, both with
the Santiago press and the world press, as you know.
They came into town, had a chance to brief a bit with the embassy
folks, and then there was a series of meetings at the ministries.
They talked to the Minister of Health and some people in the Ministry
of Mining to get an idea of what the current status was with the miners,
what the current status was of the rescue effort, and how they might
be able to help. It’s also a really long flight, so you’re
coming in without any sleep, so it’s good to have a little bit
of time in Santiago before going right into the event.
They flew up to Copiapó, again with—I believe it was
with two embassy officers who went along basically to make sure that
everything was taken care of, like what I do here, as the main interface
with the Chilean Government. Our officers are fluent in Spanish, of
course, so that helps. And also a press officer to help with press
contacts. I forget exactly how long they were up in Copiapó.
I think it was about two days.
It wasn’t long.
then when they came back, they did an outbrief again with the ministries.
The other great part about this is even before they went down and
continuing after they returned to the U.S., the beauty of modern technology
is there were regular conference calls. There may have even been digital
video conferencing, though I don’t remember exactly. Constant
emails back and forth with the contacts that they had established
in Chile. I think that’s really what I see as a great example
for moving forward. The reason why we really wanted to get a team
on the ground, even if they weren’t doing all that much with
their hands per se, was establishing those personal connections, again,
which in some ways with the USG had already been established during
the earthquake, but it’s fun getting scientists with scientists
and doctors with doctors, and they can have a whole conversation that,
if it has to run through a lot of intermediaries, is not necessarily
as productive. Getting face time with their counterparts and then
being able to continue that via electronic communication later was
great to see. I imagine a lot of those friendships and those connections
are still going, and if something else happens, it’ll be a great
way to plug back in.
go back to the part where you mentioned about these parallels, they’re
all going together. NASA’s identifying their team, and these
are based on requirements or requests that are coming in from the
Chilean Government. Is that correct?
It’s part of that conversation. When we started talking to the
Chileans here and then our embassy was talking directly to the ministries
and the Minister of Health, we started saying these are the areas
where they’re looking for expertise.
I think I forgot to mention psychological impact of the events was
a big one, along with the engineering and remote medical and nutrition.
That’s how the team was formed, was based off those requests.
you mentioned, there had been a meeting in Europe where the Chilean
officials and the NASA officials had talked during this nations meeting.
I’m curious if the State Department had received a request for
help from Chile about this, would you have thought about going to
NASA for these things if NASA hadn’t already been contacted
as well by the Chilean Government?
think that we try to think as broadly as possible. It’s hard
to say. I would like to say yes because it seems so obvious as the
idea was developing. We do try to think as broadly, maybe not on day
one, but by day three or four, as we’re responding to events,
who can plug in, which is why we were trying to talk to the Department
of Interior. So, yes. There’s this whole move, this whole almost
clichéd saying about whole of government, but it really is
hammered into our heads on the lower and mid level and even some of
the guys who have been around for a long time in the State Department.
Look, we’re the central part. We don’t have the resources
and we don’t have specific expertise, so you start talking.
A lot of what we do in our relationships with other governments is
what happened here. What do you need? You’re a close partner.
This is somewhere where we want to help. You have a lot of your own
capabilities. What do you need?
For example, if something like this happened with the U.K. [United
Kingdom] or some of our close European allies, yes, I think we’d
be thinking NASA pretty quickly. Most often we’re reacting to
Haiti or less developed countries. Are we really going to get around
to the level of expertise that NASA has, the very specific, very highly
technical? Most times we’re trying to make sure people have
food and water and are out of danger. I think some of it is the specifics
of this event, but I think, if anything, this event means that it’s
on people’s minds to think more creatively about how we bring
in other parts of the government to help in situations like this.
this event there was such an urgency because of a concern for the
health of the miners that had been recently discovered that were still
alive. Were there certain instructions that the State Department shared
with NASA and/or the team going down, such as, “This is what
you will do. This is what you won’t do”?
don’t know about instructions. Before I forget, because I will
forget if I don’t get back to it, we were also talking about
medical and psychological expertise. We were talking to [U.S. Army]
Special Forces psychological teams who were actually on call and ready
to come at a moment’s notice, but NASA actually moved a little
bit faster and I think was a better fit. But I also want to mention
DoD’s willingness and the capabilities that they could have
brought to bear. It ended up that they were a lot of overlap, so it
didn’t seem like it was necessary, but they were also talking
on conversations and were there to provide some background.
As far as instructions, no, I don’t think instructions. I think
that working with Al and working with the team, they were very conscious
of the fact that this is not a normal interaction for NASA. They were
very open in asking us about context of our relationship with Chile
and areas to look out for. We didn’t give any specific instructions
partially because our relationship with Chile is incredibly open and
it’s a very positive partnership, so there were very few things
that they could have done that would have impacted negatively on our
larger policy, especially since we’re talking about guys with
technical expertise who are responding to a direct request.
We were asking, in talking with media, that they don’t go too
broadly into subjects beyond the mine rescue, but I think they were
asking to minimize media to a certain extent for that reason as well.
It’s not their main focus and in some ways can get in the way.
So we just gave them context about what the relationship was like
and encouraged them to go with their instincts as far as not taking
on questions about Chile’s relationship with Argentina or Chinese
investment in mining in Chile or something like that.
the NASA team was greeted with great admiration and adulation when
they got there. The guys were giving them a hard time about being
rock stars because of the NASA branding and logo and its reputation.
What were the reports that you were getting back from your counterparts
in Santiago about how things were going with the team once they started
moving through their mission there on the ground, because they started
there in Santiago and then, as you mentioned, they went to the site
and then came back through?
would say first there is something to the NASA brand per se, which
is it’s seen as obviously above profit or in that sense, so
you have people at the utmost levels of our scientific capabilities
and medical capabilities doing it for something other than profit.
I don’t mean to hit that point too hard, but it’s recognized.
These guys are top-class. In Chile, too, around the world, it’s
a specialized group, and not all countries are able to invest in that
way in science. So I think that reflects part of it.
The U.S. is very popular in Chile too. We got a lot of credit for
a very robust but understated response to the earthquake where we
really supported the Chilean Government’s efforts to help its
own people, which they did very capably with huge investment, but
it was just such a large and devastating event that they needed help
just because it was huge. And I think that’s also how NASA was
seen coming in as a very visible example of the U.S. responding as
a friend when asked.
I bring that up because I think it’s also a very good segue
into a credit to the team. I think it’s Dr. [J. Michael] Duncan
who was the lead. They did a great job of recognizing both publicly
and privately how on top of their game the Chilean doctors were and
engineers were, how they were there to tweak approaches, but really
didn’t have to make drastic changes. Even though they were recognized
publicly as rock stars, they worked very much as colleagues, and that’s
hugely appreciated from my angle, because there is this tendency,
if you’re not working a lot internationally, to lump whole regions
or whole groups of countries together. In this case, Chile is a very
capable place, so I think they were very appreciative of being treated
like the professionals that they are and with the skills that they
are, and having these very experienced and technically proficient
colleagues and partners coming in to help.
It really underlies our basic foundation of our relationship with
Chile is that they are our partners and not a recipient of aid as
if they were a developing country. I think the team coming in, being
understated but very confident, very forward with their advice, but
recognizing that it was plugging into the context of a lot of existing
expertise went over great. All we heard back from our Chilean counterparts
from the Minister of Health and the Minister of Mining, to the team
up on the ground in Copiapó was, “Thanks for coming.
These guys were really easy to work with, not afraid to get their
hands dirty and get down in the mine site, and, if anything, wanted
to keep out of a lot of the distractions that would come with the
attention of the trip and get more to trying to save these guys’
they got back, they didn’t stop working. In fact, they were
in teams coming up with a list of recommendations that they filtered
their way up. Tell us how that information got from NASA to Chile.
Did it have to go through the State Department, or did it go directly
to their counterparts?
no requirement on that level. I think a lot of what we try to do is
establish that connection and then monitor how that’s going
to make sure there’s not sticking points or problems. They established
a very effective direct connection with their Chilean counterparts.
That being said, I appreciated, especially with Al’s office,
they made sure that I knew what was going on when people were talking
the basic stuff that they were working through. It was really fun
to get a [Microsoft] PowerPoint slide with a picture of the concept
for the rescue vehicle, for the Phoenix, so I have that somewhere
on my computer, the first idea. Again, the NASA team was great at
saying, “We didn’t design this, we didn’t build
it, but we gave some ideas of what needed to be incorporated.”
I think the U.S. press started running off with, “NASA came
up with the whole rescue thing,” and the Chileans grated at
that a little bit, but not with anybody who was actually involved,
because the NASA team and Dr. Duncan continued to be very gracious
in talking about the cooperative nature of the interaction.
But, yes, we heard excellent things. I’m sure they would be
welcomed back anytime they want to go down. There was a trip on schedule
recently that I think may have been delayed now. I’ve been out
of the office for a little while, but I think they might be going
down there this fall for a follow-on.
know that based on what you’ve told us earlier and the information
you sent me that you work with international issues all the time.
How was this one different, yet how was it similar to other things
that you have done?
primarily been working on Afghanistan, say, or Armenia or Pakistan
floods, so I think there’s two things that are different. One
is it’s nice to be working on such a positive story with such
capable people on both sides. I don’t mean to be sounding like
I’m waving the Chilean flags, but to have a country that was
responding to the needs of its people or took that on first and is
very capable, and then to have such capable people in another agency
in our own government that we can then just plug together and then
watch it work beautifully, in our work that’s a rare thing and
a very positive thing.
I think how it differentiates, we often feel like we’re banging
our head against the wall on any number of issues if you’re
thinking Nagorno-Karabakh [War] between Armenia and Azerbaijan or
Cyprus or Middle East or other current major problems, trying to establish
good governance in Afghanistan or Pakistan. These are grinding, incredibly
difficult projects or initiatives that are going to go long after
I’m working in a certain area. For me to come in and say, “Here’s
a problem and people who have a very human need, and here’s
some tools that we have that we can help,” and here’s
people actually using those tools and those relationships very effectively,
and then the end result is better than anybody could imagine, and
it’s all within a contained period of my time working on Chile.
I’ll have that with me forever.
was a good-ending month, and then a lot of progress there in those
last couple of months. You had mentioned some of the federal agencies
that you reached out to. Were there other corporations or agencies,
individuals that offered their help? And how did you manage to filter
through those and not pass those on?
of the frustration, as something like this is developing and you only
have one phone, is that you’re not able to always recognize
everybody’s great intent to help, and you do triage requests
for which you know the needs out there or as you’re trying to
figure out what the needs are. Sometimes it meant getting back to
people two to three days later that I would have loved to talk to
immediately. This goes from Boy Scout troops that were sending [Apple]
iPods, to a company that was sending glowing earplugs that helped
with the circadian rhythm for miners. We had local mining companies
and state mining agencies that were offering their expertise. You
look at how much time you have, what’s going to actually do
the most good most quickly for helping the miners that were there.
You grab that immediately and get it online, and then you go back
later, usually pretty late at night, and call the other people back
and say, “Thank you very much.”
What we ended up doing as it developed after a couple days is the
Chilean Embassy set up a couple of people there who could take all
the more peripheral—I don’t mean to say that in a bad
way, but the stuff that wasn’t directly focused on getting these
guys out. I could funnel the requests to a couple of their officers
at the Chilean Embassy, who would then talk to the Boy Scout troop
or talk to individual companies. There were some companies who wanted
to send sanitary kits and some nutrition stuff. They could take it
and work directly with their ministry and say, is this something we
need? Is it going to get there in time? The first couple of days I
was handling it all. After that, I would grab the things I thought
needed to immediately get incorporated, and the other stuff I was
able to hand over to my Chilean colleagues who would then work with
about the funding and how it worked from the State Department. You
mentioned, for instance, finding a very professional translator to
be able to work with this team when they got there to be able to handle
everything they needed. That was one cost. Other costs that you might
have incurred, is that part of what you have on standby, or was that
the funny part; we actually have almost no funding. As you’ll
see in the coming days, it’s an ongoing frustration because
people don’t really know what we do, and we’re a pretty
low-cost agency because we’re people. That’s all we have.
There’s seven thousand Foreign Service officers in the world.
I think actually NASA picked up a lot of the costs, which, unfortunately,
is often what we have to do. We have funds, direct funds, for humanitarian
assistance, but we ran across a couple of triggers with this because
of its unique circumstance. That’s usually warehouses of food
and water and inflatable boats that we can send to a flood, and they’re
already pre-purchased and there’s mechanisms to release emergency
money. When you’re talking about an event where the Chilean
Government itself is already investing seven or eight million dollars
and NASA’s sending a team of four or five people, but not bringing
in major equipment, we found that you’re really just talking
airline tickets, hotel costs, and a translator. That still ends up
being thousands of dollars, which in the scheme of things is very
small, but if you’re trying to scrape up a couple thousand dollars.
NASA was actually great in finding the travel money for those guys.
The Chilean Government also picked up a good chunk. I don’t
remember exactly which, but it may have been hotels and the translator
or something along those lines. The State Department itself in this
instance didn’t really have a mechanism to—but we do maintain
an embassy down there, and we had a couple dozen people who could
work on it.
you have inquiries from Capitol Hill on what was going on and what
agencies were being utilized to help with this?
was some. Particularly Senator Harry Reid’s office, I’ve
talked to one of his main staffers a couple times. That particularly
came up when we were trying to figure out how to move the drill bits
that the Chileans were contracting from Center Rock [Inc.]. He said,
“If you can’t figure that out, let me know.”
A lot of that, we work very closely with the National Security staff,
and they end up being a center point for—that’s the interagency
hub, so we were making sure they were updated. They may have been
calling above my level in the sense that I’m an action officer,
so my bosses, part of their job is to take phone calls from congressional
staff if I’m crashing on actually trying to get something done.
They may have been talking to our assistant secretary.
There was a buzz of interest and there were lots of people who were
checking in. Again, that was one of those things where this isn’t
directly applicable to what I’m trying to accomplish. I remember
Senator Reid’s call because he was offering something that would
help the immediate response. There was regular congressional response,
but I don’t remember a specific inquiry.
was such a small part of your time on the Chilean desk. It all happened
very quickly. Were you recognized for those efforts of helping to
have a positive outcome with the involvement?
but in a kind of typical State Department way, in that my State Department
colleagues did recognize me. At the end of my tenure on the Chile
desk, I got an award which in part was because of the mine rescue.
Also we had a Presidential visit and a couple other things that were
big, so it was stuck in there, but it was mentioned.
NASA was great. They gave me a plaque which has a picture of Chile
from the Shuttle and a couple flags that flew in space, so that’s
actually worth a lot to me because that’s a rare thing to get.
I didn’t get to go to the [White House] Oval Office and get
a medal, but that’s not really what we do. What we do is find
the people or set up the mechanisms so that people can use their skills
to really step up as they did and be really hands-on to make things
happen. We coordinate and we smooth the road, and I’m happy
to have been a part of it in that way.
has to be the greatest challenge that you faced during that time period?
of hours in the day, and funding. One of the biggest frustrations
was the Chilean Government coming to us and asking us for this drill
bit that, in the end, was the technology that broke through, and they
were having a hard time moving it. I would love to have just said,
“All right, we got it. We’ll put it on a plane tomorrow.”
Huge back-and-forth with DoD about how much they were going to charge
the State Department to send it down there, and then we’re talking
to different companies about how much it would cost, and then talking
about chartering companies, but it was all restricted within this
concept that we have very limited and specific pots that we can use
for disaster relief or for this type of cooperation.
I felt like there were a lot of hours spent working around something
where, in the scheme of things, it would have been nice to have been
able to have emergency money that we could just allocate. But it worked
out. UPS [United Parcel Service] came through with donating the plane
and the carrier capacity to bring it down. But it took a lot of phone
calls and a lot of other mechanisms in the meantime that led to dead-ends
before that could get accomplished, and I think it probably delayed
getting the rescue equipment down there.
were your thoughts when you learned that the miners were making it
to the surface?
was pretty confident at this point, once the NASA team was down there,
once we had a holding pattern going where we knew that they were getting
water, we knew that they had enough air, nutrition was good. There’s
always a concern that there will be another rockslide or something
like that, but we got to a point where we knew geologically that they
were pretty stable, we knew medically they were pretty stable, and
then we started hearing all this great success with the drill bit.
At that point it took away some of the tension because we were pretty
sure that these guys were going to get out alive. It was just how
long would they have to endure their situation. And especially once
they were able to start communicating with their families, it was
less concern that they would lose hope.
The fun part, though, was I was over at the Chilean Embassy and they
put up a big screen outside. I got to be particularly close with one
of the political officers over there, the Deputy Political Counselor
who was kind of their point man. Being there and being with him, and
we had a pisco sour, which is the national drink of Chile, and everybody’s
jumping up and down, and, “Chi, chi chi, le, le, le! Los mineros
de Chile!” That was great.
Then I went back, and we actually had some friends in town and just
stayed up watching every miner pop out. Even our friends, they’d
been following it and they knew I was involved, so maybe that brought
more of a tie-in, but I just thought it was great that people who
had no concept of where Chile was, didn’t really even know much
about the country, recognized this as such a positive event. In a
world that often focuses on the negative, to have something that was
just without complication a good thing, I think really brought people
A miner would pop up, and it would be like the twenty-second miner,
and you could still hear out your window that people were cheering
in D.C., who have no connection with Chile. So that was fun. I had
my little sticker. At the Chilean Embassy they have a sticker that
says “We’re all good in the refuge, los treinta-tres.”
I have that right up on my refrigerator, and I remember taking a picture
in front of the TV with that. So it was neat.
was a good time, good memory.
memory. And now it continues, you know. We have the Smithsonian [Institution]
what we learned today.
have the opening event tomorrow. It opens on Friday, which is the
anniversary. That’s fun. For once in limited humility—I
don’t know, you’ll have to talk to my wife about whether
or not I pull that off. It’s one of the rare times when that
was an idea I had the day after the event. I went and had a celebratory
lunch with Rodrigo Arcos, who’s the Deputy Political Counselor
at Chilean Embassy, and he was my main guy. We were talking and I
said, “We should do an exhibit. We should celebrate this. We
should commemorate this cooperation.” It wasn’t just the
U.S. and Chile; there were big international mining companies that
gave millions of dollars’ worth of equipment and many other
countries that were providing expertise.
It was just a neat thing, and the U.S. had a big role in it with NASA
advising, but then just the fact that we have a company that just
develops drill bits for rescue missions. That speaks to something
about how our country is put together and how our economy works. Our
relationship with Chile was feeling we never thought it could get
all that much better and it continued to get better, so this was this
big moment, and we said we should find a way to continue celebrating
I think two days later, I called up the Smithsonian and pitched it
to them, and they weren’t sure because they didn’t know
if they had enough time to put it on. Then working with Rodrigo, we
started trying to convince the Chileans to do it, and ended up going
into a meeting with their Deputy Chief of Mission and saying, “Look.
I have Smithsonian now on board if you guys send this stuff,”
and helping them raise money.
I’m really excited, because tomorrow the Foreign Minister of
Chile [Alfredo Moreno Charme] is coming up and he’s meeting
with Secretary [of State Hillary Rodham] Clinton, who’s going
to make a couple comments about how positive—again, commemorating
the event, but also this exhibit. Then the Foreign Minister will actually
open it. It came around, the celebratory beer the next day and said,
“We should do this,” and being able again in a short period
perfect timing for you that it happened before you’re on the
other side of the world.
Again, it’s very rare for us to see something that you’re
working on come to fruition. So that’s fun. You should see it.
like to do that. Well, I don’t want to keep you too much longer.
Do you have any questions? Is there anything else you can think of
that we might not have touched on, some other significant contribution
or challenge that you might have had to deal with?
I think, overall, it was a very positive event. I think the funny
part was often when my colleagues, especially from offices I’ve
worked at before, they were like, “Ah, Chile desk. You’re
going to go take it easy for a while.” Then they’d see
me walking out of the Department at 11 p.m. “What are you doing?”
In this case we were doing something that I think was unique and very
positive, so I’m glad to have been a part of it.
you, and thanks for being a part of our project.