The leader of the 33 men rescued from a collapsed Chilean mine spoke to reporters for the first time late Thursday about how he kept them going in the 17 days before they were found.

Luis Urzua, 54, who was foreman at the San Jose mine quickly imposed his authority after the cave-in on Aug. 5 left the men trapped deep underground.

A topographer by training, Don Lucho -- as his men called him -- mapped out the area where they were trapped, sorted the men into three eight-hour shifts and organized the rationing of food -- two spoonfuls of tuna and half glass of milk every 48 hours.

It was those actions that kept the men alive until a rescue probe managed to reach them on Aug. 22 and the story of the men’s survival first flashed around the world.

But Urzua, the last man rescued from the mine on Wednesday night, said all he did was be straight with the men and lay out the options before them.

“You just have to speak the truth and believe in democracy,” he said. “Everything was voted on. We were 33 men, so 16 plus one was a majority.”

Another survivor Richard Villarroel, 26, told the Washington Post that Don Lucho constantly encouraged the group.

He said: “Every day, he told us to have strength. If they find us, they find us, if not, that’s that.”
Villarroel feared in the days before the miners were found that he would never get to see his unborn child. “You just had to rough it. Every 24 hours eat a small piece of tuna. Nothing else. We got skinnier and skinnier ... We were waiting for death.”

Villarroel was the 28th man winched up from the depths in Wednesday’s dramatic rescue, watched live on TV around the world. He said that on their meager rations and with only oil-tainted water to drink they quickly lost weight and muscle mass as they waited to be rescued.

But it was only after the rescue teams far above finally got through to them that they addressed the subject of cannibalism.

“At that moment, no one talked about it,” he said. “But once it was over, it became a topic of joking, but only once it was over, once they found us.”