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Mine foreman keeps trapped crew on task in Chile

Rescue operation to save 33 miners, trapped for more than two months in a collapsed copper mine, reaches the final stages.

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By Jonathan Franklin
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, September 4, 2010; 9:57 PM

COPIAPO, CHILE - Luis Urzua went to work as a shift foreman at the San Jose gold and copper mine in northern Chile on Aug. 5. A month later, the steely 54-year-old has yet to relinquish his command, pivoting to the challenge of organizing the increasingly sophisticated existence of 33 men facing long-term entrapment underground.

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In the miner's hierarchical world, a supervisor effectively becomes "owner of the mine" during his typical 12-hour shift, according to Chile's health minister, Jaime Manalich. "It is a military discipline," he said Friday. "Natural selection is extremely strong in this world. This is an extremely dangerous job."

Urzua is up to the task, according to Andres Llarena, a physician and commander in the Chilean navy who is at the mine helping coordinate medical aspects of the rescue operation. "He is a leader in his field and has been for ages," Llarena said.

For Urzua, the command challenges began within moments of the mine collapse. According to rescue workers, Urzua quickly ordered his men to huddle while he took three miners on a scouting mission. Correctly deducing that the group was trapped, Urzua instituted a set of rules that would be crucial to the men's survival, including the strict rationing of the mine's limited stash of emergency food - two spoonfuls of tuna and half a glass of milk per man every 48 hours.

As rescuers spent 16 days vainly attempting to drill a rescue hole 2,300 feet to the trapped men, Urzua also used his skills as a topographer to chart the miners' underground world, which includes more than a mile of tunnels and caves and a 35-square-yard refuge, as well as a gallery where the men sleep. With a white Nissan Terrano pickup as his office, Urzua drew detailed maps, dividing the accessible space into a work area, a sleep area and a sanitary facility. He also kept the men on a 12-hour shift schedule, using the headlights of trucks to simulate sunlight.

When the first letters from the trapped men arrived topside, rescue workers were heartened to see the messages carefully worded and dated, a sign the miners were not disoriented. "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 a particularly prescient move by Urzua. When rescuers finally drilled through the roof of the miners' shelter, the workers had run out of food and had not eaten in 48 hours. "Their health was on a curve like this," Manalich said, slicing his hand downward.

As Urzua's 12-hour shift stretches to a month, the former football coach has such complete control over the situation that during a daily medical conference call Friday, Urzua told Manalich, the health minister: "Keep it short. We have lots of work to do."

Indeed, as the miners' saga shifts from basic survival to active participation in a complex rescue plan, Urzua has many tasks to oversee. On Saturday, the men began the move to a new shelter, a drier area about 200 yards farther down the shaft. They had already spent days reinforcing the roof.

Urzua receives three daily briefings - one from a doctor, another from a psychologist and the third a miner-to-miner update on the technical aspects of the rescue operation. The Chilean government has in place three rescue plans. Known as plans A, B and C, each effort represents a multimillion-dollar gamble - and each depends on Urzua's ability to organize his crew to help.

"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 rescue mission's lead engineer, as he briefed Urzua by telephone Friday. For 10 minutes, Urzua and Sougarret discussed plans to construct drainage and holding pools and canals to shunt water away from the miners' living quarters.

An audio recording of their conversation would have sounded like a normal back-and-forth between manager and shift supervisor. In fact, Sougarret was standing in a windswept tent, speaking into a Nitsuko phone system the size of a small suitcase, with cables running almost half a mile into the ground, where a weary Urzua prepared for a mission that will determine whether 33 men survive.

"I fully believe they will do it," said Al Holland, a psychologist with NASA who had traveled to Chile to share the agency's experience with 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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