Tue, Sep 07, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Chilean mine foreman works heroically to keep hope alive

Shift leader Luis Urzua and his men still have a lot of work to do as they deal with technical aspects of the rescue effort, including digging canals and holding pools

By Jonathan Franklin  /  THE OBSERVER , SAN JOSE MINE, CHILE

Indeed, as the miners’ role shifts from basic survival to active participants in a sophisticated rescue plan, Urzua has a host of tasks to prepare. On Saturday, the men began the move to a new shelter — an area with less mud about 200m down the mine shaft. The men not only reinforced the roof, but spent days chipping away at loose rocks in the ceiling to avoid being struck by falling stones at night.

Urzua receives three daily briefings: One from a doctor, another from a psychologist and the third from a miner updating him on the technical aspects of the rescue operation. The Chilean government has three separate rescue plans in place, called simply plans A, B and C. Each effort is a multimillion-dollar gamble; all count on Urzua to organize a host of tasks for his mining crew.

“You realize that if we do it this way, there will be some 70,000 liters of water coming down into your chamber,” said Andre Sougarret, the lead engineer in overall rescue plans as he briefed Urzua by telephone on Friday.

For 10 minutes Urzua and Sougarret discussed plans to engineer drainage and holding pools to shunt the water into canals, away from the miners’ living quarters.

A simple audio recording of their talk would have sounded like a normal conversation between a mining manager and a shift supervisor. However, in this case, Sougarret was standing inside a windswept tent talking into a Nitsuka phone system the size of a small suitcase, with cables running straight down 700m into the ground, where a weary Urzua prepared a mission that will determine the survival of his men.

“I fully believe they will do it [survive],” said Al Holland, a psychologist with NASA who rushed to Chile in an effort to share the agency’s experience of human isolation in extreme environments. “The miners are quite hearty, quite resilient ... They have shown every sign that they can organize themselves; they are masters of their own fate.”

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