Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010

The Chilean Miners

There is no ear in the earth to hear my sad moaning
Abandoned in the middle of the infinite earth! —Pablo Neruda

When we meet Mario Sepúlveda in the Pacific Coast city of La Serena, Chile, in November, it is 1 a.m., and he is running laps around his hotel pool. Like many of the other 32 miners who were rescued in October after 70 days trapped beneath Chile's Atacama Desert, Sepúlveda, 40, still has trouble sleeping. "I only get three or four hours a night," he says. It might be because of the memories of waiting 2,300 ft. (700 m) underground for 17 days before officials located the miners, when the specter of starvation or even cannibalism haunted each man, or it could be that their biological clocks are still set like those of subterranean bats.

The insomnia is a reminder that los 33 — whose miraculous survival and rescue this year inspired a world desperate for a happy ending to something, anything — haven't yet completely emerged from their dark abyss. Yet this is as good as it gets for mining dramas, as recent tragedies, from the U.S. to New Zealand and especially China, where 1,261 miners were killed in just the first half of 2010, make all too starkly plain.

Why did things turn out so blessedly different in Chile? A mother lode of luck and faith was involved. But the rescue also showcased a commodity even rarer today than the gold the miners were quarrying: leadership. "We made sure it was one for all and all for one down there," foreman Luis Urzúa tells us. After the San José gold and copper mine collapsed on Aug. 5, forcing the men into an emergency shelter, Urzúa's avuncular guidance kept them alive for more than two weeks with just two days' worth of food. Chilean President Sebastián Piñera tells TIME that while he was grateful for U.S. help — it was a Pennsylvania team that eventually drilled a shaft to retrieve the miners — he also had learned from America's dawdling responses to Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill. Advisers warned Piñera that the miners were probably dead, but, he says, "I decided we had to act immediately and, as a society, play for life."

Urzúa was most sorely tested when the miners suddenly heard search drills just meters above their heads and then just as suddenly heard them go silent. "To have that much hope turn into that much despair — that was worse than dying," recalls miner Daniel Herrera, 27. Urzúa agrees. "I realized we were a needle in a haystack," he says. "It's then that you have to convince them not just that they're going to survive but why they have to survive — their families, their faith."

Probes found the miners on Aug. 22. That's when Piñera, 61, a conservative billionaire whose brother was a minister under the 1973-90 dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, and Urzúa, 54, who hails from a poor mining family and whose leftist stepfather was murdered by Pinochet henchmen, bonded over rescue plans. "We were very direct and frank with each other," says Piñera, who insisted Urzúa address him with the familiar rather than the more formal usted. The night of Oct. 13, they stood together after Urzúa, the last miner to be freed, was brought up in the rescue capsule.

The miners have since been welcomed from Beijing to Broadway, and they're learning to cope with their newfound fame — to handle finances, endorse products and negotiate deals. But what many say they'd like more than anything is a good night's sleep.

Q&A with Chilean Miner Luis Urzúa

Luis Urzúa was the foreman of the 33 Chilean miners — Los 33 — trapped 2,300 feet below the Atacama Desert for 70 days before they were finally rescued in October. Urzúa's avuncular leadership helped his men survive the first 17 awful days after the collapse of the San Jose gold and copper mine in northern Chile, keeping them united, active and in good spirits while stretching two days' worth of food more than two weeks until officials finally located them. Urzúa, 54, a mining veteran and self-taught geology expert, spoke briefly with TIME's Tim Padgett and Aaron Nelsen in Santiago:

TIME: What did you learn from this drama to be the most important ingredient of successful leadership?
Urzúa: Preparation. All the geology study I did, all the courses I took on mines, including [the San Jose mine], and all the security procedure reviews — you keep asking yourself, Why are we doing all this? And then one day you see all of this — the hardship we endured but also all the celebration we're enjoying now.

TIME: What moment most sorely tested your leadership skills down there?
Urzúa: I'd have to say the moment, strangely enough, when we first felt hope. After quite a few days we could suddenly hear the drills probing for our whereabouts; we could hear them just meters above our heads. And then just as suddenly they went silent and disappeared. That was probably the worst moment of despair for everybody: it was easy to think then that this was it, this was far as those drills, and we, were going to go.

TIME: What could you do?
Urzúa: Even though I realized that locating us was like finding a needle in a haystack, I never gave up hope that help would arrive. It's then that you have to convince [the men] not only that they're going to survive, but why they have to survive — their families, their faith.

TIME: The miners themselves have applauded you for your democratic approach to rules and organization below ground.
Urzúa: We were 33 people with distinct characters, but we made sure it was one for all and all for one down there. I feel my best decision as the foreman was to insist that everyone participate in the decision process — the 16-plus-one majority held sway — about everything from each man's tasks to how much we'd eat and drink each day and where. Keeping order and structure was very important. You have to understand, when the mine collapsed it was chaos — like one of those snow avalanches you see in the movies. There was so much dust it took more than a day just to see in front of ourselves.

TIME: When you were found and it was time to plan the rescue, you were the leader below and President Piñera was the leader above. You're from a poor mining family, the President is a billionaire. Was communication difficult?
Urzúa: It wasn't as difficult as some might think. In fact, our differences may have made our communication that much stronger, as we learned about each other. I remember on one phone call hookup between [the miners' emergency shelter] and his office here in Santiago, we must have talked for half an hour. The important thing was that neither of us ever doubted, even before los 33 were found, that we'd all survive this thing.

TIME: You also told him, "Please don't ever let this happen again."
Urzúa: I owed it to every miner everywhere to say that. And I'm glad to see the President is demanding [mining] reforms now.

TIME: Some of you just returned from China, where people welcomed you as heroes, as they have everywhere you go. Have you been surprised by the worldwide outpouring for you and the miners?
Urzúa: Not surprised but a little amazed, especially at the quantity of people around the world who supported us — and at the faith the whole world had in us. This was about faith in the end.

Q&A with Chilean President Sebastián Piñera

Chilean President Sebastián Piñera spearheaded the rescue of 33 miners trapped 2,300 feet below the Atacama Desert for 70 days. A conservative billionaire who has governed Latin America's most developed country as a moderate since taking office last March, the Harvard-educated Piñera, 61, spoke with TIME's Tim Padgett and Anthony Esposito at the La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago:

TIME: What drove you to get to so personally involved in the miners' rescue?
PIÑERA: When the [San Jose gold and copper] mine collapsed on Aug. 5, I was on my way to President Santos' inauguration in Colombia. I apologized to him and returned to Chile, to the mine. It was apparent the mining company was too small, with no capacity to carry out a search-and-rescue mission; so I decided, either the government does it immediately, with total commitment, or it will be too late. And we would seek out the world's best help, including the U.S. I recalled how much time was lost in the [U.S.] response to [Hurricane] Katrina arguing over who was responsible and who wasn't, and the same thing happened with the [Gulf] oil spill. First you solve the problem, and afterward you identify those responsible and punish them.

TIME: Did you really believe that the miners were still alive under more than 2,000 feet of collapsed rock?
PIÑERA: My own advisers told me, "Don't get too involved in this — this is going to end badly." And in fact, the history of mining accidents is brutal; the immense majority end with everyone dead. But I had a profound personal conviction, an inner voice, that the miners were alive. The [miners'] families transmitted that faith as well. This was about the value we assign human life. So I told them, "We're going to look for these men as if they were our own sons." I decided, as a society, that we were going to play for life.

TIME: You were at the mine when the men were finally located.
PIÑERA: On Aug. 21, my wife and I were with my father-in-law, who was dying of cancer. He was an engineer and knew a lot about mines, and he told me that night, "They're alive, we're going to find them, don't give up." The next morning, Aug. 22, he died, and my wife told me to go to the mine. So I went, and that afternoon, after 17 attempts to locate the miners with drilling probes, we found them with the 18th. I keep the message they sent up — Estamos bien en el refugio los 33 (All 33 are OK in the emergency shelter) — in my office.

TIME: You're a billionaire, from a conservative, pro-business party. Could you really relate to working-class miners and their families?
PIÑERA: I grew up middle class. My father was a public functionary who didn't leave an inheritance, just debts. Luis Urzúa [the miners' foreman and leader during their ordeal] and I were very direct and frank with each other — sometimes I spoke by phone with him from here in the palace — and I insisted he address me as [the familiar] tu instead of [the formal] usted. We had some disagreements, such as how fast we should be moving the rescue. But he achieved real leadership of the group below, and I owed him my respect.

TIME: There were reports that you actually wanted to go down into the mine yourself during the rescue.
PIÑERA: I thought about it, but I knew my job as President was at the surface. I'm a person with a lot of affection for adventure — I scuba dive, skydive, fly helicopters. But my wife told me, "Don't even think about it."

TIME: The rescue also pointed up how shameful miner safety still is in Chile. Did you get so involved with this in part to prove the compassionate conservatism that you pledged in your presidential campaign?
PIÑERA: This year was our bicentennial. In my campaign we proposed a grand mission to make Chile, by the end of this decade, the first country in Latin America to escape the underdevelopment that has trapped us for 200 years, to create a society of genuine opportunity for everyone. The first pillar of that project is a revolution in the quality of our human capital, like education reform and radical labor reforms to create a new culture of worker safety.

TIME: Chile has an impressive economy, but can it really become a developed country as long as it has one of the region's widest gaps between rich and poor?
PIÑERA: No. We also need a new culture of worker dignity, starting with closing the giant gap between the richest and the poorest, so we don't have people living on two distinct planets. Aside from labor reforms, we're pushing for income tax reform and getting our business owners to see that we need not only innovation from them but social responsibility as well.

TIME: Two decades after the end of the right-wing Pinochet dictatorship, under which your brother served as a Minister, Chile remains politically polarized. Has the rescue helped break down the sharp divide between left and right?
PIÑERA: Chile was indeed a tremendously divided society during [the Pinochet] era, which lasted almost 20 years [1973-90], and our government aspires to overcome it. The miners meant unity for everyone here. We found that united we can achieve great things, that this bicentennial generation can realize the dreams our grandfathers never could — and rescuing the trapped miners is one example. That said, we also received generous help from many, many countries. I would like to thank the U.S. government and the U.S. people [for one].

TIME: Compared to Brazil or Argentina, foreigners know little about Chile except its wine. Will that change now as well?
PIÑERA: I think this has been extremely good for Chile's image. We never in our wildest dreams imagined being present in the world in such a positive way. Chile is perhaps not as well known because it was forged in an atmosphere of difficulty. Early on it wasn't a rich viceroyalty like Peru or a giant like Brazil; it was a poor, remote captaincy, buffeted by nature and very isolated from the world.

TIME: Chileans, perhaps as a result, can seem reserved and aloof to outsiders. Did the miners show the world a more outgoing side of the Chilean character?
PIÑERA: I will admit that the exuberant personality of [miner] Mario Sepulveda, for example, is not very common in Chile. But yes, I think we're seeing the emergence of a more audacious, happier Chilean character, and that's a good thing.

TIME: Should the miners be TIME's Persons of the Year?
PIÑERA: I really think they deserve it, because they gave a very good example to the world, fighting for their lives united, with faith and courage. [They demonstrated] that we can achieve goals that to other people might appear impossible. I think the world is a better place because of them. Normally, big news is bad news, but in this case it was very big news but also very happy news.