October 14th, 2010
06:51 AM ET

Last miner out hailed as shift boss who kept group alive

After the Chilean mine collapsed on August 5, shift boss Luis Urzua divided the lone cans of tuna in the dark cave among the men to keep them alive.

Without food, light or contact with the outside world for days, the shift boss organized the 32 others into three work shifts. He kept them busy, and he helped keep them alive. He led the group that was forced into living in continual darkness - and kept their spirits and solidarity in tact as they faced living in a cramped area with high humidity and hot temperatures.

And it was Urzua, 54, who first established contact with the outside world on August 22, 17 days after the mine collapsed, trapping him and his men. On that day, before even asking for help or about a rescue, he wanted to know the fate of the other men who had left the mine right before its collapse. He was thrilled and cheered on the phone that day.

But two days later he shared the anxieties of the state of the trapped miners.

"Under a sea of rock, we are waiting for the whole of Chile to pull hard so that we can be taken out of this hell," he told Chilean President Sebastian Pinera during their first phone call on August 24.

Inside the underground cavern,  Urzua, who has worked in mining 31 years, pored over diagrams of the mine, working with rescuers to construct a plan for the escape.

And so it was fitting that he would be the one - who offered - to be the last man out. Only after all the other men were each lifted to safety one by one would Urzua leave the mine.

Twenty-two and a half hours after the rescue began, at 8:55 p.m. ET Wednesday, that moment finally came. Urzua spent the longest inside that trapped mine out of everyone.

Video inside the mine looked darker - the Chilean flag that had been sent down to the men and put up on the walls was now bare. Urzua was taking it with him.

He shook hands and hugged the remaining rescue workers who were still below. And then just like each man before him, Urzua was harnessed and locked into Fenix 2, the capsule marked in the colors of Chile, and made the trip up through the rescue shaft that workers so diligently drilled for months.

As he reached close to ground level, signaled by a blaring signal, the way it did for each man before him, emotions on the ground reached a fever pitch. Several sirens were blaring. The crowd erupted into applause - and Pinera, the Chilean president, clasped his hands together and held a wide smile on his face - and finally a sign of relief.

Chants of "Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le!" rang out as it had for each miner. But this one was different - it went on longer and louder. The unthinkable had been done - 33 men defied the odds and survived what is likely to have been longest underground disaster.

The rescue capsule finally reached the surface, and the crowd erupted again at the site of Urzua's face.

"We prevailed over imperfect conditions," a worker at the site said.

Finally free, Urzua shared with the world what the miners experienced after the collapse in the mine.

"The most difficult moment was when the air cleared and we saw the rock," Urzua said in broadcast remarks from the rescue site immediately after his rescue. "I had thought maybe it was going to be a day or two days, but when I saw the rock. ..."

He said it was not easy to "keep our composure" after the first couple of days.

"We thought this was going to be difficult," he said.

The crowd broke into the Chilean national anthem.

Urzua emerged from the capsule with the flag that no doubt helped keep faith alive inside a rescue area where there once was none. And much of that was perhaps due to Urzua's guidance and leadership during the ordeal.

After hugging a family member, Urzua embraced Pinera, and they clutched each other's hands before breathing a sigh of relief.

"You have won the appreciation and the gratitude of all the Chileans," Pinera told Urzua. "You deserve it."

Pinera echoed the praise in a televised address.

"He was a shift boss who made us proud,"  Pinera told Chileans after the rescues. "I want to thank the families of the miners who maintained faith - this faith that ended up moving mountains."

For Urzua it was a moment of thanks - and hope.

"I hope this will never happen again. I hope that the Chilean mining will be different, that things will be done correctly" said the last man out of the gold and copper mine. "I'm proud of being Chilean."

soundoff (232 Responses)
  1. RagTag

    It's nice to see a potential tragedy end on a good note. What a relief for all involved.
    One thing I thought was odd. For being down there for as long as they were, the last miner out sure didn't look like he had much more than a weeks growth of facial hair. Odd. Maybe thats just the conspiracy nut in me coming out. It does seem strange though.

    October 14, 2010 at 12:01 pm | Report abuse |
    • happy

      In another story, it says the miners requested razors and shaving cream before being brought to the surface. They have had access to a spring in the mine.

      October 14, 2010 at 12:36 pm | Report abuse |
  2. emee

    Ver happy and proud of all involved.

    Thanks to the Lord for keeoing them all.

    A vital lesson in what love and unity of purpose can bring about! Glad the miners were able to rally themselves and not spend the time quarreling and bickering.

    Thank God the rescue team persevered!

    October 14, 2010 at 12:01 pm | Report abuse |
  3. A. Shrestha

    Thank you God. We saw a miracle. We felt it. God bless all the miners and rescuers for their strength in themselves and belief. The management and leadership of the rescue was excellent. Most importantly, there was no false hopes distributed, all played their parts to realize a miracle for the world to see. We feel that nothing is impossible. Hope the world learns from this triumph over tragedy.

    October 14, 2010 at 12:04 pm | Report abuse |
  4. phil

    Accidents happen. None of us are perfect , and we make mistakes. That's why we call them accidents. Nobody made them happen willfully, especially not God. And accidents like this one in Chile happen the world over daily. They usually only involve one person being injured or killed so it's not reprted internationally. working in the drilling and mining industry is very dangerous, so no matter how hard we try, there will be injury.

    October 14, 2010 at 12:33 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Bam

    They shoulda died........

    October 14, 2010 at 12:55 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Bam

    They shoulda died......

    October 14, 2010 at 12:56 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Madandev

    Most of the time, while watching the rescue attempt in process, I had tear in my eyes. I do not think any compassionate human being on the earth would have any feelings other than goodwill and success for the ongoing efforts. I am very glad it turned out to be such a memorable and a great event of our time. As an american media user, I have one thing to say to our fellow commentators:

    If you do not have any good things to say or add to the episode at hand, please keep your mouth shut and go brainwash yourselves with some p[orno cultural things.

    I do not know what is wrong with these so called sophisticated dumb @ss idiots, if you give them lemonanade they will try to make it sewage sludge.

    October 14, 2010 at 1:26 pm | Report abuse |
    • Point Killed

      You must have failed Cliche 101.

      October 14, 2010 at 1:48 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Faithless in Seattle

    I am just amazed at how many people have to lace their comments with God this and Jesus that. Maybe I AM "lost", but couldn't it just be the result of hard working men and women using science and logic to excavate these brave men?

    October 14, 2010 at 1:45 pm | Report abuse |
    • Rocky Landing

      Sorry, Faithless, that's far too rational. Atheists don't have any real morals or compassion. And don't go bringing up your Devilish "science." Only REAL Christians who allow themselves to be used as the "merciful right hand of God" could have accomplished such a rescue. Or something like that.

      October 14, 2010 at 2:36 pm | Report abuse |
  9. SoSoScared

    I'm so scared to be breathing the same air as all the Jesus freaks around me.

    October 14, 2010 at 1:58 pm | Report abuse |
  10. teto

    I believe that the story regarding the miner and his mistress is none of our business, and we need to stop gossiping.

    October 14, 2010 at 3:20 pm | Report abuse |
  11. mauricio conerly

    to ann, it is Americans like you who are loud and crass give Americans a bad name around the world not Barack Obama. This was a team effort many people from various nations were involved and instead of acknowledging that and just feeling good about the rescue of 33 people, you had to give all credit to Americans.check yourself out. Why would you need to do something like that? Isn't good good enough?

    October 14, 2010 at 4:23 pm | Report abuse |
  12. andrea

    I think the shift boss that kept them alive and sane should be now employed by nasa .. for survival training .. as nasa wants to take men to mars .. what person better to do this . he is mentally and physcially strong and able to think clearly in adverse suitations ...

    October 14, 2010 at 6:08 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Kamara

    To each one of those men it was the world, as it is for all men that may be granted the pause to stare down the barrel of what could be their final moments. How remarkable that they were granted a reprieve and lived to tell the tale.

    October 14, 2010 at 7:41 pm | Report abuse |
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