Chilean miners — leadership, inspiration

On August 5th 2010 a “cave-in” accident in the San Jose copper-gold mine near Copiapo, Chile trapped and buried 33 Chilean miners 700 meters or 2,300 ft (almost half a mile) underground below the Atacama desert. On October 13, after 69 days, all 33 miners were safely rescued and brought to surface while reportedly almost a billion people around the globe watched the rescue operation live on TV. It was an inspirational story of survival that deservedly got a worldwide coverage and attention. Boston.com published a series of photos from the rescue operation from various sources that captures some of the sensitive and emotional moments.

Chilean miners rescue

The rescue operation was a notable one in more ways than one: it was the result of a successful coordination and collaboration of experts and companies from several countries, in part due to the willingness and openness of Chile’s government to ask for help. Resources, expertise and machinery came in from USA (e.g. NASA), Canada and Australia. In terms of technology and engineering it was also quite a feat. Strata 950 drilling machine, of which there are only five in the world, and one happened to be in Chile was utilized. A 13 ton drilling machine was brought in from USA. And special rescue capsules, named Fenix (after the mythological bird, Phoenix) were designed and built by the Chilean navy and NASA that were used to bring the 33 miners to the surface one by one.

But more intriguing than the rescue operation was the aspiration and will of the 33 men to survive and live. Their endurance, tenacity, emotional and mental strength to not lose it and last almost 70 days buried half a mile deep in earth — living on only a table spoon of tuna or salmon and half a glass of milk a day, and drinking oil contaminated water — and their humanity to co-exist and cooperate, are all admirable.

What was even more remarkable was the leadership of their 54 year old shift supervisor, Luis Urzua, who turned out to be a lot more than just a supervisor on paper. He exhibited true leadership skills, rationing food, holding regular meetings and having the men vote on various decisions, giving men strength and hope, and more. As a symbolic gesture, like a sinking ship’s captain, he was also the last one to be rescued. His accomplishment and leadership skills have been covered elsewhere at some detail. For example, see “Luis Urzua: Chile’s underground leader” by Jena McGregor in the Washington Post. In “Chilean Miners: Leadership Lessons from Luis Urzua”, Kathy Kristof explores the key characteristics of a great leader such as Urzua — reputation, teamwork, focus, discipline, shared credit, and higher purpose.

The humble Urzua takes less credit than is attributed to him. In the first interview after the rescue with Guardian.co.uk, he cites democracy as the secret to keeping it going. Apparently they held regular meetings and voted on every decision, where they’d need 16+ votes to pass it. It couldn’t have possibly been all that simple and easy though. As another miner points out in the same article, “There was the waiting for death, the hopelessness, the petty squabbles and the nagging, unspoken fear of cannibalism.” That is only natural. It couldn’t be otherwise. Regardless, they somehow managed to pull through and make it against all odds.

Atacama Desert
Atacama desert, by wilth via Flickr

I was inspired to hear about the rescue operation and the important role that Luis Urzua played in this ordeal. For one, I was happy for the 33 men and their families. It is a celebration of human spirit. It is also a kind of event that brings people of the world closer to each other as it helps us realize our common humanity and makes us more tolerant of our differences. Many of us probably learned a thing or two about Chile and its people in the process. Maybe some of us will even plan to go visit Chile and the Atacama desert because of this event. I certainly want to do that. And next time we meet a Chilean in our home country we may take time to have a conversation with him or her because of this event.

Past the remarkable rescue operation, I appreciate and admire the physical and mental strength of the men and their unselfish leader for their survival. I remember the few times when I faced danger under difficult and uncertain circumstances. It is not easy to deal with:

  • There was the 4-day long ordeal of being smuggled out of Iran through Kurdistan a few years after the 1979 revolution. In my teenage mind I had thought I was tough and a good mountaineer. But just three days of hiking and horseback riding in the mountains of Kurdistan in Western Iran near the border of Turkey with Kurdish smugglers, while hiding from the Iranian army and border security, lack of sleep, the cold and the uncertainly … and the panic set it. I made it through and got to Istanbul five days later, but I was weak and scared.
  • A few years ago over Christmas holidays, while on a drive to a ski resort with friends on a mountainous back road in Canada, our car skidded out of control on black ice and almost went into a deep drop, had it not been for a small bank of icy snow on the side of the narrow road. We got stuck on the icy road overnight till help arrived in the early hours of morning. It was pretty scary. I remember I complained a lot regretting my decision to go to Canada for holidays, while a friend managed to keep his calm and even crack some jokes.

Not cool. I think if I were to participate in the TV reality show Survivor, I’d be one of the first to get voted off! The story of brave men surviving for almost 70 days, 2,300 ft under ground, puts me to shame. I am spoiled: I grew up in a loving family. I have had a good education and decent jobs in good companies, certainly no shortage of opportunities. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, probably one of the best places in the world in many ways for someone like me. I have traveled extensively. I am fairly healthy. I have good friends, … I have had it easy.

There are just too many beautiful sunny days in California, and yet there are days when I feel I have a hard time getting through them, regretting past mistakes, and being negative and unhappy about petty things, and my life in general. It is as if I am doing just the opposite of what the Chilean miners did, digging myself deep into the ground. I should be thankful.

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