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.
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 to 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. Rescue workers say Urzua quickly ordered his men to huddle while he took three 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, Urzua 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 pickup as his office, Urzua, a former football coach, 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 truck headlights 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."