COPIAPO, Chile – The crew of Chilean miners was pinned nearly a half-mile underground by 700,000 tons of rock after what felt like an earthquake in the shaft above them, and had no real hope they'd ever be found. Luckily, though, the men had Luis Urzua.
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 with them.
It was no surprise, then, that Urzua was the last of the 33 miners to leave the San Jose gold and copper mine after more than two months of confinement.
Urzua — after shaking hands and embracing rescue workers — climbed into a cramped cage at 9:46 p.m. 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."
Pinera greeted 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.
"You are not the same, and the country is not the same after this," Pinera added. "You were an inspiration. Go hug your wife and your daughter."
With Urzua by his side, he led the crowd in singing the national anthem.
Robinson Marquez once worked with 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, Marquez said.
Under Urzua's leadership, the men stretched an emergency food supply meant to last just 48 hours over 2½ weeks, taking tiny sips of milk and bites of tuna fish every other day.
"We had only a little food," Urzua said Wednesday night. "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 minimized use of the vehicles, which contaminated the available air.
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 that 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."
After the collapse, Urzua was the first to speak to Pinera and to urge him to not let him and his men down.
"Don't leave us alone," he implored the president.
Marquez described Urzua as a "calm, professional person," and a born leader.
"It is in his nature," Marquez said. "It is his gift."