AP
In this screen grab taken from video, Luis Urzua, center, the 33rd and final miner to be rescued from the San Jose Mine near Copiapo, Chile, is seen after his rescue Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2010. (AP Photo)
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updated 10/13/2010 10:50:48 PM ET 2010-10-14T02:50:48

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.

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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 captain. ... 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.

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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."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Last miner rescued amid cheers, singing

Photos: Rescue

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  1. Relatives of the 33 Chilean miners celebrate after the rescue of the last miner in Copiapo, Chile, on Wednesday, Oct. 13. The 33 miners had been trapped 700 meters underground since Aug. 5. (Ian Salas / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rescue workers hold a sign reading "Mission Accomplished Chile" after the last of the 33 trapped miners, Luis Urzua, was lifted from the mine in the Fenix 2 capsule Wednesday. (TVN CHILE) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Chileans celebrate after the last miner was rescued in Copiapo, on Wednesday. The extraordinary two-month survival story many called a 'miracle,' triggered wild celebrations. (Mariana Bazo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Chilean trapped miners gather inside the San Jose mine as the rescue operation starts in Copiapo on October 13, 2010, in this handout photo by the Chilean navy. (Armada De Chile / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The last miner to be rescued, Luis Urzua, who is credited with organizing the miners to ration food and save themselves, celebrates next to Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, at right, at the end of the rescue operation at San Jose mine in Copiapo, Wednesday. (Ho / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Chilean trapped miner Luis Urzua, right, who was shift leader when the San Jose mine collapsed in early August, poses next to a rescuer before the start of the operation to hoist them to safety from the mine in Copiapo on October 13, in this handout photo from the Chilean navy. (Armada De Chile / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. People celebrate the end of the successful rescue operation to free 33 trapped miners from the San Jose mine in Copiapo, Chile, Wednesday. (Martin Mejia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Miner Franklin Lobos, a former professional soccer player, receives a ball as a gift from Chile's President Sebastian Pinera after Lobos became the 27th miner to be rescued from the San Jose mine. (Ho / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Esteban Rojas, 44, kneels in prayer after stepping out from the rescue capsule and becoming the 18th miner to be rescued on Wednesday at the San Jose mine. (Hugo Infante / Chilean Government via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Raul Bustos, the 30th miner to be rescued, is carried away by stretcher. (Handout / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Franklin Lobos greets a relative after being rescued from the San Jose mine. (Handout / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Roxana Gomez, daughter of rescued miner Mario Gomez, cries as she watches the rescue of her father on a TV screen at the relatives camp outside the San Jose mine near Copiapo, Chile, Wednesday. (Natacha Pisarenko / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Miner Alex Vega reacts show off his t-shirt after being rescued from the mine near Copiapo, Chile on Wednesday. (Hugo Infante / Chilean Government via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Relatives of Chilean miner Victor Zamora watch a TV broadcast of his rescue operation taking place at the San Jose mine. (Ian Salas / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. The oldest of the trapped miners, Claudio Mario Gomez, 59, celebrates as he becomes the ninth to exit the rescue capsule on Wednesday, near Copiapo, Chile. (Chilean Government via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Roxana Gomez, center, daughter of miner Mario Gomez, and Maria Segovia, right, sister of trapped miner Dario Segovia, react while watching the rescue operations on TV. (Natacha Pisarenko / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Miner Claudio Yanez applauds as medics carry him away on a stretcher after his rescue from the collapsed San Jose gold and copper mine early Wednesday. (Hugo Infante / Chilean government via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Miner Osman Araya, right, greets his wife, Angelica Ancalipe, early Wednesday, moments after he was rescued from the collapsed mine where he had been trapped with 32 others for more than two months. (Hugo Infante / Chilean government via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. People watching a large screen in a public square in Copiapo celebrate as Mario Sepulveda becomes the second miner to reach the surface. (Mariana Bazo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Miner Mario Sepulveda celebrates after emerging from the rescue capsule. (Hugo Infante / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. People watching television screens in Copiapo celebrate as they watch the first miner to be rescued, Florencio Avalos, emerging safely. (Dario Lopez-mills / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Chilean President Sebastian Pinera embraces rescued miner Florencio Avalos, left, after his rescue. (Jose Manuel De La Maza / Chilean / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. The capsule that is being used to bring the trapped miners to the surface is moved into position at the start of the operation. (David Mercado / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, center, observes as the rescue capsule is lowered into the shaft for its final test. (Hugo Infante / Gov. Of Chile / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Miners greet rescuer Manuel Gonzalez after he arrives at the base of the shaft. (TVN CHILE) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Relatives and friends of the trapped miners celebrate while watching the rescue of Florencio Avalos on a television screen at a camp outside the mine. (Natacha Pisarenko / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A man clasps his hands together as if in prayer as he watches the rescue operation on a large screen in Copiapo. (Mariana Bazo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Relatives of the 33 Chilean miners celebrate after the arrival of Luiz Urzúa, the last miner of the group,
    Ian Salas / EPA
    Above: Slideshow (27) Rescue brings joy to families and nation - Rescue
  2. Image: Relatives of trapped miner
    Natacha Pisarenko / AP
    Slideshow (40) Rescue brings joy to families and nation - Cave in
  3. Image: Relatives of trapped miner
    Natacha Pisarenko / AP
    Slideshow (40) Chilean mine collapse

Gallery: Miner profiles, first moments of freedom

Read about each of the 33 miners as they are rescued.

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