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

Tue, Sep 07, 2010 - Page 9

About 700m underground, in the most traumatic of circumstances, Luis Urzua has no intention of relinquishing command of the 32 men in his care. Urzua, 54, went to work as usual on Aug. 5 as shift foreman for the ill-fated group of Chilean miners who became trapped below the Atacama desert in the north of the country. Now he finds himself shouldering responsibilities of the most extraordinary kind.

“The hierarchy and power of a supervisor in the world of the miner is extremely powerful; it is a military discipline,” Chilean Minister of Health Jaime Manalich said as he explained the ability of Urzua to organize the miners’ increasingly sophisticated underground existence.

“Natural selection is extremely strong in this world,” said Manalich, who emphasized the “rigid system” of power which effectively makes a shift foreman “owner of the mine” during his typical 12-hour shift. “This is an extremely dangerous job, if you look at the statistics, this region of Chile has the highest worker mortality rate in the nation and that is led by mining.”

“[Urzua] is a leader in his field and has been for ages. He is recognized by his peers as a leader,” said Andreas Llarena, a commander in the Chilean Navy who has been sent to the scene of the mining accident to help coordinate medical aspects of the rescue operations. “For a miner, their shift leader is sacred and holy. They would never think about replacing him. That is carved in stone; it is one of the commandments in the life of a miner.”

For Urzua, the command challenges began within moments of the mine collapse — he quickly ordered his men to huddle while he took three miners and scouted up the tunnel, searching for information on the massive cave-in. Correctly deducing that the men were trapped, Urzua instituted a set of rules and regulations that were both methodically rigid and crucial to the men’s survival. He ordered that the mine’s stash of emergency food be rationed into minimal portions — two spoonfuls of tuna fish and half a glass of milk every 48 hours.

As rescuers spent 16 days in frustrated attempts to drill a rescue hole 700m down to the trapped men, Urzua also used his training as a topographer to make detailed maps of the miners’ underground world, which includes more than 2km of tunnels, caves and a 35m2 refuge.

With a white Nissan Terrano pickup truck as his office, Urzua drew maps; divided the miners’ world into a work area, a sleep area and a sanitary facility; and used the headlights of mining trucks to simulate sunlight in an attempt to provide a semblance of routine to the men’s daily lives. Urzua also kept the men on a 12-hour shift schedule.

When the first letters from the trapped men arrived “top side,” rescue workers were heartened to see the messages carefully worded and dated, a sign that the miners were not disorientated.

“You think they wrote those letters in the moment? No,” Manalich said. “Urzua had that material prepared. He knew there would be a rescue mission.”

The rationing of food was by all accounts a remarkably prescient move by Urzua. When rescuers finally drilled a hole through the roof of the miners’ shelter, their food was all gone and the men had not eaten in 48 hours.

“Their health was on a curve like this,” said Manalich, sweeping his hand down.

As Urzua’s 12-hour shift stretches to over a month of command and control, the former soccer coach has such complete dominion over the situation that on Friday last week during a daily medical conference call, he told Manalich to “keep it short, we have lots of work to do.”

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.”