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Shift leader helped miners stay calm, alive

Shift leader helped miners stay calm, alive

October 14th, 2010 in News

COPIAPO, Chile (AP) -- The crew of Chilean miners was pinned nearly a half-mile underground by 700,000 tons of rock after what felt like an earthquake in the shaft above them, and had no real hope they'd ever be found. Luckily, though, the men had Luis Urzua.

Urzua, 54, was the shift commander at the time of the disaster, and used all his wits and his leadership skills to help his men stay calm and in control for the 17 harrowing days it took for rescuers to make their first contact with them.

It was no surprise, then, that Urzua was the last of the 33 miners to leave the San Jose gold and copper mine after 69 days of confinement.

Urzua -- after shaking hands and embracing rescue workers -- climbed into a cramped cage at 9:46 p.m. and was hauled up from a narrow hole drilled through 2,000 feet of rock.

He arrived at the top 11 minutes later to jubilant cheers, songs and applause. He then stood beside Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, who led the ecstatic crowd in the national anthem.

Robinson Marquez once worked with Urzua in a nearby mine, Punta del Cobre. "He is very protective of his people and obviously loves them," Marquez said, and would be sure not to leave until all his men were safe.

Under Urzua's leadership, the men stretched an emergency food supply meant to last just 48 hours over 21/2 weeks, taking tiny sips of milk and bites of tuna fish every other day.

They conserved use of their helmet lamps, their only source of light other than a handful of vehicles. They fired up a bulldozer to carve into a natural water deposit, but otherwise minimized using the vehicles that contaminated the available air.

"The way that they have rationed the food, just as they've performed throughout this crisis, is an example for all of us," Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said after he first spoke with the miners via an intercom rescuers had lowered through a bore hole.

"We heard them with such strength, such spirit, which is a reflection of what for them has been a gigantic fortitude and a very well-organized effort," Golborne said.