For Chilean miners a year later, the two worlds of darkness and spotlight


Luis Urzua and Esteban Rojas, two of the miners rescued last year from the Chilean mine collapse, came to Washington, DC, for a discussion at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History commemorating the anniversary.
October 13, 2011

Luis Urzúa and Esteban Rojas were running behind schedule at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History on Tuesday. They were almost late for their own event.

Yet, the men still posed for pictures and signed autographs. Urzúa and Rojas even hugged people whom they had never met and whose language they do not speak.

“People recognize us because people prayed for us. They were involved in our tragedy,” Rojas said, with the help of an interpreter. “We are very grateful when they ask or want to take a picture with us. We say thank you in that way.”

It is a unique following for the two men, former miners catapulted into the spotlight one year ago.

On Oct. 13, 2010, an estimated 1 billion people watched live on television as Urzúa, Rojas and 31 other Chilean miners—known as “Los 33”—were pulled out of a collapsed mine 700 meters deep. The rescue, which was an international effort that lasted for 69 days, launched the miners to fame, including tours, awards and official film and book deals in the works.

“We could tell something of what we went through, but it’s only one or two percent of all that happened,” Urzúa said. “We are going to tell the truth.”

Rojas and Urzúa told parts of their experiences at “Stories from the Mine” on Tuesday, the first in a series of Smithsonian events exploring the leadership lessons of the mine’s collapse and rescue. The panel discussion also featured Laurence Golborne, Chile’s minister of public works, followed by the premiere of “Chilean Mine Rescue,” a new Smithsonian Channel documentary.

Yet, what became a story of hope began as a crisis for Chile, a country that relies on copper mining for 20 percent of its gross income, Golborne said. After the San José mine in Copiapó, Chile, collapsed on Aug. 5, 2010, no one knew if the men were dead or alive. It took hundreds of rescuers 17 days merely to locate the trapped miners. It would take another 52 days to save them.

“In the first 17 days, no one wanted to be in charge, but I had to be,” said Golborne, who at the time was Chile’s minister of mining. “Lots of people were saying we were wrong, and I had no good news to tell them.”

According to Urzúa, Tuesday’s discussion was the first time he had heard Golborne’s perspective on the events that occurred on the surface prior to the breakthrough on day 17. “I am truly moved to hear everything he described,” Urzúa said, “because all that suffering he was going through on the surface, we had that mirrored down below.”

In the mine, the men were worried that the outside world had already forgotten them, according to Urzúa. Still, they managed to find strength in unity through daily prayer and strong organization.

As the shift leader, Urzúa took control and rationed the mine’s emergency food and water supplies—enough to feed only 20 people for two days—for 33 men over the course of 17 days.

Although the skills he learned throughout his years as a miner allowed him to successfully manage and unify his crew even in the worst conditions, Urzúa said he did not actively seek a leadership role when the mine collapsed

“My leadership is something that was forced, that I was forced to do,” he said. “More than leadership, I feel that this was a team effort, because me, as a person, I had the ability to work with people and that’s how you become who you are.”

The miners remained unified—“Los 33”—even as the Phoenix rescue capsule delivered them, one by one, to the surface. Urzúa, the shift leader, was the final miner to reach the surface, 69 days after the collapse.

“This example of finding strength to sustain each other and still draw strength to sustain themselves is a poignant example of resilience,” said Jeffrey Klein, director of the Wharton Graduate Leadership Program and the moderator of Tuesday’s discussion.

Yet, 365 days after the rescue, life is very different for the miners.

Some of the men face bankruptcy and ill health. The San José mine is permanently closed; while some of Los 33 have gone back to work in other mines, most have not. Some of the 33 remain out of work today.

In many ways, the miners might feel forgotten in Chile, even as their popularity continues internationally, according to Klein. “I think that, as Americans, we are struck by stories about underdogs, accomplishment against the odds,” he said. “The thing that strikes me most is that they all point to others.”

Golborne points to the strength of the trapped miners. Rojas points to God, “the 34th person in the mine,” he said. Urzúa, instead, points back to the government and the rescue teams who worked tirelessly to free the men.

Rojas said the miners feel indebted to those who saved them—and to the millions who followed the story on television.

“We will never get tired of saying thank you to people,” Rojas said. “Even when we die we will still need to say thank you. We will never say thank you enough.”

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Laurence Golborne on leadership lessons from the Chilean mine rescue

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