Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 30 September 2014

Chile mine rescue: How Belfast did its bit

Rescue drill cutter made by local firm, but recognition comes too late as plant closes

SAN JOSE MINE, CHILE - OCTOBER 13: (NO SALES, NO ARCHIVE) In this handout from the Chilean government, Ariel Ticona, the 32nd miner to be rescued, is hugged by Chile's president Sebastian Pinera on October 13, 2010 at the San Jose mine near Copiapo, Chile. The rescue operation has begun bringing up the 33 miners, 69 days after the August 5, 2010 collapse that trapped them half a mile underground. (Photo by Hugo Infante/Chilean Government via Getty Images)
SAN JOSE MINE, CHILE - OCTOBER 13: (NO SALES, NO ARCHIVE) In this handout from the Chilean government, Ariel Ticona becomes the 32nd miner to be rescued on October 13, 2010 at the San Jose mine near Copiapo, Chile. The rescue operation has begun bringing up the 33 miners, 69 days after the August 5, 2010 collapse that trapped them half a mile underground. (Photo by Hugo Infante/Chilean Government via Getty Images)
Some of the 33 trapped miners inside the San Jose mine in Copiapo, Chile (AP)

Drill bits made in Northern Ireland have been used in the rescue mission to free the 33 trapped Chilean miners.

But the accolades have come too late for workers at the Hughes Christensen factory in Belfast, who crafted the two vital 28” drill bits, some of the last items to roll off the production line at the Castlereagh plant which closed down in recent weeks.

The drill bits were a vital part of the rescue plan, which saw the miners being winched from their rocky prison after a cave-in 69 days previously.

The hi-tech hardware was used in a series of moves to free the trapped men and helped cut shafts to provide air and supplies.

In a statement earlier this year, the firm's parent company, Baker Hughes, said its operations would be transferred to its base in Texas with the loss of up to 210 jobs.

The factory had been in operation for 55 years making the cutting-edge drill bits.

The company had to make 135 people redundant in 2009, blaming a decline in the world market and leading to, ultimately well-founded, fears for its survival.

Production has wound down at the company over the last few weeks, at the same time as one of its last products was assisting in a rescue being watched by millions worldwide.

Like so many other Northern Ireland-made products, like De Lorean cars, Short’s aircraft and, of course, the Titanic, much of its fame has come after its passing.

Gary Flaharty, vice-president of investor relations at parent company Baker Hughes, said it was “with regret” that the factory was shut.

“We did ship two drill bits from Belfast to assist with the rescue in Chile,” he said.

Flaharty praised the skills of the Belfast workers who made the tool.

“It was with regret that we are leaving Belfast. The workers have been absolutely fantastic,” he added.

Castlereagh UUP councillor Michael Copeland called the situation “desperately sad”.

“We in this city and this country used to be pioneers,” he said.

“There is a continued leeching of talent and skill and heritage out of Northern Ireland and I find it desperately sad.”

Iconic creations that emerged from Belfast

Northern Ireland has produced some world famous, instantly recognisable and iconic brands over the years .

Here are just a few.

Since 1936, Shorts in east Belfast manufactured aircraft but now makes mostly parts and components as Bombardier Shorts Inc. The factory was sold to Bombardier in 1989 for £30m.

In its heyday, the Short Sunderland seaplane built in Belfast became famous as an anti-submarine patrol bomber during the Second World War when its long range and flying time helped end the Battle of Britain by closing the Mid-Atlantic air gap between Iceland and Greenland.

The DeLorean DMC-12 car was manufactured in Northern Ireland by the DeLorean Motor Company in 1981-1982. It became famous for its appearance in the Back to the Future films. By then the Dunmurry factory where it was made had shut.

Perhaps Northern Ireland’s best known export was RMS Titanic, which rolled out of the dry dock at Harland and Wolff in 1912. Infamously, she sank on her maiden voyage.

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