Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 26 July 2014

Chile miners rescue: Shift leader Luis Urzua helped miners stay calm

Luis Urzua, center, the 33rd and final miner to be rescued from the San Jose Mine near Copiapo, Chile
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)
Some of the 33 trapped miners inside the San Jose mine in Copiapo, Chile (AP)

The Chilean miners had no real hope they would ever be found. Luckily, the men had Luis Urzua.

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

It was no surprise, then, that Mr Urzua was the last of the 33 miners to leave the San Jose gold and copper mine after more than two months of confinement.

Mr Urzua - after shaking hands and embracing rescue workers - climbed into a cramped cage at 9.46pm 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.

"We have done what the entire world was waiting for," he told Chilean president Sebastian Pinera immediately after his rescue. "The 70 days that we fought so hard were not in vain."

Mr Pinera greeted Mr Urzua like the fellow leader he has been. "You have been relieved, coming out last like a good capitan. ... You have no idea how all Chileans shared with you your anguish, your hope, and your joy," he said.

"You are not the same, and the country is not the same after this. You were an inspiration. Go hug your wife and your daughter."

With Mr Urzua by his side, he led the crowd in singing the national anthem.

Robinson Marquez once worked with Mr Urzua in a nearby mine, Punta del Cobre. "He is very protective of his people and obviously loves them" and would not have left until all his men were safely aboveground, Mr Marquez said.

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

"We had only a little food," Mr Urzua said today. "We give thanks to God that we were able to resist" eating it all right away.

The trapped men made sparing use of their helmet lamps - their only source of light other than a few vehicles. They fired up a bulldozer to carve into a natural water deposit, but otherwise minimised use of the vehicles, which contaminated the available air.

Mr Urzua said that when rescuers first made contact by pounding a narrow borehole into their refuge, the miners were so elated that "everyone wanted to hug the hammer".

He described the difficulties of the first days, saying it took about three hours for the dust to settle before the men could inspect where tons of collapsed rock sealed off the main way out.

He said he knew they were in for a long wait. "I saw (the collapsed rock). Many thought it would be two days. But when I saw it, I knew otherwise," he said.

After the collapse, Mr Urzua was the first to speak to Mr Pinera and to urge him to not let him and his men down.

"Don't leave us alone," he implored the president.

Mr Marquez described Mr Urzua as a "calm, professional person" and a born leader.

"It is in his nature," Mr Marquez said. "It is his gift."

INTO THE LIGHT...THE MINERS' PRIVATE LIVES

One is a great-grandfather four times over, another a 19-year-old father. A third - the oldest - is 63 and has spent half a century working the mines. A fourth had a wife and a mistress too.

The men who survived 69 days trapped underground after a mine collapse made history as they - and their private lives - tumbled out into the light.

THE MEDIC

Johnny Barrios Rojas' rescue was among the most anticipated - if only to see who would be there to greet him.

No 21 of the men pulled from the collapsed mine, Mr Barrios gained notoriety as the man who had two women at Camp Hope - his wife of 28 years Marta Salinas, and his mistress of four, Susana Valenzuela.

Ms Salinas apparently knew nothing of the affair until the two women ran into each other amid the tents pitched by family members anxiously holding vigil - and a very public spat ensued.

Mr Barrios, 50, looked around sheepishly today as he emerged from the rescue tube that elevated him to the Earth's surface, peering through sunglasses as mining officials in red shirts applauded loudly.

Behind him, smiling widely and waiting for him to notice her stood Ms Valenzuela. When he did not, the round-faced strawberry blonde walked around to face Mr Barrios and gave him a long kiss and hug, weeping into the shoulder of his jumpsuit as he whispered into her ear.

Ms Salinas was nowhere to be seen.

Weeks earlier, Mr Barrios' wife had ripped down a poster of her husband put up by his mistress. Defiant, the mistress taped the poster back up, and beneath several poems and prayers she had dedicated to him, she signed it "Your Wife".

Dubbed "el enfermero" - the nurse - Mr Barrios served as the miners' medic during the ordeal, dispensing medication sent in by health officials, passing out nicotine patches and photographing wounds.

He reportedly ended all his letters this way: "Get me out of this hole, dead or alive."

THE VETERAN

He had promised her if he got through this alive they would finally have their church wedding - after three decades, four daughters and seven grandchildren.

So when 63-year-old Mario Gomez emerged, grasped a Chilean flag and dropped to his knees to pray, Lilianett Ramirez was the one who pulled him up from the ground and held him in a long embrace.

The promise of a proper wedding came in the first letter Mr Gomez had ever written to his wife during their 30-year marriage. Scrawled on sheets of notebook paper, the letter was placed in a plastic bag and tied to the end of the drill bit that first broke through to their underground purgatory, along with another miner's message announcing: "We're all OK in the refuge, the 33."

Read on television by President Sebastian Pinera, Mr Gomez's "Dear Lila" letter was filled with faith and determination, and showed the world the miners were holding strong.

A miner since he was 12, Mr Gomez is missing three fingers on his left hand from a mine accident and suffers from silicosis, a lung disease common to miners. He made the ascent wearing an oxygen mask and was on antibiotics and medicine for bronchial inflammation.

As the most experienced miner in the group, Mr Gomez, using maps and diagrams, became "the GPS we needed down there", rescuers said.

THE ORGANISER

Omar Reygadas became a great-grandfather for the fourth time while trapped underground.

The 56-year-old electrician had survived other mine collapses and was said to have exclaimed "Not again!" when he and the others were trapped by the August 5 collapse.

Mr Reygadas later helped organise life below the surface, calming others when they got nervous and helping them get what they needed from authorities outside.

"He is in charge of ensuring that we are well," one miner wrote to his wife.

THE YOUNGSTER

Jimmy Sanchez, the youngest at 19, proposed to his 17-year-old girlfriend while he was trapped below, though his father urged him to reconsider. The couple have a four-month-old daughter.

"You are just 19, and have so much life ahead of you, to enjoy, to know people," read the letter Eugenio Sanchez sent to his son. "It cannot be that because you are now closed up in the mine that you are going to throw away all your plans."

"It's fine that you want to be with Helencita and everything... but get married? Well, marriage is a really serious thing."

But girlfriend Helen Avalos said she was sure they would be wed. "He has to keep his word," she said. But first, "We'll have an enormous party. I think we'll have almost 500 people."

THE EVANGELIST

Jose Henriquez turned to his Christian faith while he was underground, forming a prayer group that met several times a day and asking to have 33 bibles sent down the narrow supply passage.

Nevertheless, the 56-year-old father of twin daughters had one vice he hoped the time underground would cure.

Mr Herniquez' wife Hettiz Berrios was said to be happy when her husband asked authorities to send him food rather than cigarettes. "He's trying to stop puffing. ... Hopefully he'll do it," she said.

THE FOOTBALLER

Former Chilean national soccer player Franklin Lobos has never seen a bigger victory.

Mr Lobos, 53, briefly bounced a football on his foot and knee as he stepped from the capsule that carried him from the mine where he was trapped with 32 other men. Then he embraced relatives and President Pinera.

He is the only rescued man whose name was widely known in Chile before the disaster. He played for the Chilean team that qualified for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

He was the driver of a truck that takes miners to and from the mine and was in the mine with the group he ferries when the collapse occurred.



Timeline and the miners rescued

1. 12.04am - Florencio Avalos, 31, the second-in-command of the miners, chosen to be first because he was in the best condition.

2. 1.10am - Mario Sepulveda Espina, 40, who captivated Chileans with his engaging personality in videos sent up from underground.

3. 2.08am - Juan Illanes, 52, a married former soldier who urged his fellow miners to be disciplined and organised while trapped.

4. 3.09am - Carlos Mamani, 24, the lone Bolivian, started at the mine five days before the collapse. One of 11 children who emigrated because he could find work, he has been promised a house and a job from Bolivian President Evo Morales.

5. 4.10am - Jimmy Sanchez, at 19, the youngest miner and father of a months-old baby.

6. 5.34am - Osman Isidro Araya, 30, the father of three, had planned to quit the mine at the end of August because of the risk.

7. 6.21am - Jose Ojeda, 47, a widower with no children who has diabetes. Two of his nephews were on hand at the site to greet him.

8. 7.02am - Claudio Yanez, 34, a drill operator who requested cigarettes be sent down while awaiting rescue and expressed disgust at the nicotine patches he received instead.

9. 7.59am - Mario Gomez, at 63 is the oldest of the miners. He also is the most experienced, having first entered a mine shaft to work at the age of 12.

10. 8.52am - Alex Vega, 31, who is married with two children, had been saving to buy a house and move out of his parents' home. His father helped in rescue efforts - using a false name because officials prohibited relatives from doing the dangerous work.

11. 9.31am - Jorge Galeguillos, 55, was injured in at least two earlier mining accidents. He has 13 brothers and requires medication for hypertension. Officials have promised to help his son, who is a university student.

12. 10.11am - Edison Pena, who is 34 and married, was reportedly among the most depressed of the trapped men and asked rescuers to send down a photo of the sun. He tried to run every day for exercise.

13. 10.54am - Carlos Barrios, 27, is the father of a five-year-old boy. He is separated from his wife.

14. 11.30am - Victor Zamora, 34, was a car mechanic and labourer who has worked at the mine for five years. He sent up poems to his wife, who is pregnant, and is the father of a four-year-old boy. While underground, he complained of tooth pain.

15. 12.07pm - Victor Segovia, 48, kept a diary of life below, asking those above to send down more pencils and paper. He has five cildren, is an electrician and plays guitar.

16. 12.49pm - Daniel Herrera, 37, was a truck driver and taxi driver. Herrera is single; his mother and sister have been waiting for him at Camp Hope.

17. 1.38pm - Omar Reygadas, 56, helped organise life below ground and reportedly survived other collapses in the mine. A widower, he has six children, 14 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, including one born while he was trapped.

18. 2.49pm - Esteban Rojas, 44, proposed a church wedding "once and for all" in a message to the woman he married in a civil ceremony 25 years ago. They have three children.

19. 3.27pm - Pablo Rojas, 45, reportedly went to work at the mine six months ago to help pay university fees for his son, who is studying medicine. He is married.

20. 3.59pm - Dario Segovia, 48, is a lifelong miner whose father first took him underground at the age of eight. Twice married, he has three children from each marriage. He has worked at the mine for three months, drilling holes for dynamite. He has 12 brothers and sisters.

21. 4.31pm - Johnny Barrios Rojas, 50, worked for 25 years at the mine and served as the medic for the group because he had first aid training. Awaiting above are relationships that need healing as well: his wife and his lover met at Camp Hope.

22. 5.04pm - Samuel Avalos, 43, is married with three children. He had been working as a street vendor and got a job at the mine for more money.

23. 5.32pm - Carlos Bugueno, 26, found himself trapped alongside a childhood friend, Pedro Cortez. A passionate soccer fan, he asked to have game broadcasts piped below. Relatives said the former security guard went to work at the mine to earn money for a car and house.

24. 5.59pm - Jose Henriquez, 55, formed and led a prayer group while trapped and had friends send 33 small Bibles down the tiny supply hole. Chilean reports say that in January he helped save several miners who had passed out in the mine, apparently due to gas, and had to be rescued himself when he was overcome returning for another miner. Married with twin daughters, he has spent 33 years in the mines and survived a landslide on the surface in 1986.

25. 6.24pm - Renan Avalos, 29, is the brother of Florencio Avalos, the first man out. He had worked at the mine for five months.

26. 6.51pm - Claudio Acuna, 35, proposed to his girlfriend Fabiola Araya from below ground. He has two children.

27. 7.18pm - Franklin Lobos, 53, a former professional soccer player, drove the bus that carried the miners to work. Lobos was a midfielder on the Chilean teams La Serena, Iquique and Cobresal, and was on the national team that qualified for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. He has two daughters.

28. 7.44pm - Richard Villaroel, 23, is returning to his wife, who is in the late stages of pregnancy.

29. 8.13pm - Juan Carlos Aguilar, 46, has worked as a miner since he was 19. He is married with two children.

30. 8.37pm - Raul Bustos, 40, a hydraulic engineer, was caught up in both of Chile's two recent tragedies. The tsunami caused by February's earthquake destroyed the shipyard where he worked so he journeyed north to work in the mine two months before he was trapped there. He would travel back 20 hours by bus to visit his wife and two children.

31. 9.01pm - Pedro Cortez, 25, an electrician, helped install the communications system used to talk back and forth with the surface. He lost a finger in an earlier mining accident. He and his wife are separated and have one daughter.

32. 9.28pm - Ariel Ticona, 28, was still awaiting rescue when his wife gave birth to their second daughter. They named her Hope. He worked with Mr Cortez to install the underground communications system.

33. 9.55pm - Luis Alberto Urzua, 54, shift foreman at the time of the collapse, is widely credited with helping the men survive by enforcing tight rations of their limited food, lights and other supplies. Speaking for the miners shortly after their discovery, he told Chilean president Sebastian Pinera: "We hope that all of Chile shows its strength to help us get out of this hell."

More info: 2010 Copiapó mining accident

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