Skip to main content

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, right, hugs Mario Sepulveda after the miner was rescued from the collapsed San Jose gold and copper mine where he was trapped with 32 other miners for more than two months.

Jose Manuel de la Maza/AP/Jose Manuel de la Maza/AP

On the morning of Aug. 6, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera spoke to his Mining Minister, Laurence Golborne.

Twenty-four hours before, a small gold and copper mine had collapsed in northern Chile, sending a geyser of dust into the air and plunging the families of 33 men into despair. Accidents are not uncommon in a country with a mining tradition that extends back to the Spanish conquistadors and a blemished safety record nearly as long.

Yet this tragedy struck a chord with Mr. Pinera, who took power in March just two weeks after a devastating earthquake struck the country. He immediately dispatched Mr. Golborne to the mine.

Story continues below advertisement

His instructions: Fix this. Spare no expense. Baldo Procurica, a Chilean senator who was present, recalls the leader saying that there was "no limit to the resources" to be spent on the effort.

It was a critical executive decision by a man whose long walk through the halls of a different kind of power - the world of business - made him uniquely qualified to make a gamble that anyone with political savvy would have avoided.

It didn't hurt that Mr. Pinera's mining minister happened to have a similar pedigree.

What followed was what might be called the MBA rescue.

It was a $10- to $20-million exercise in crisis management run by a Harvard-educated billionaire President and his Stanford-educated retailer lieutenant, each only recently transplanted into government office.

It ended this week, of course, as a brilliant political masterstroke, one that has vaulted to immense popularity the first conservative government to reach power in this country since far-right dictator Augusto Pinochet's reign ended in 1990.

But behind the scenes, it was a carefully directed exercise by men whose pasts have given them an uncommon appetite for risk - and an uncommon expectation of success.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Pinera is among the world's 500 richest people, a man who has grown small airlines and television networks into major players.

Mr. Golborne has run some of the top companies in South America.

Together, they staged the rescue with the meticulous execution of a new business venture. Its planners were innovative and persistent.

They learned from others' mistakes, hired the best talent, worked out hundreds of contingencies, put in place multiple backup plans, carefully managed expectations, assiduously marketed every move - and, above all, accepted a level of hazard that would have made weaker-kneed leaders tremble.

"From a political point of view, his advisers probably told the president to do something different," Mr. Golborne says, in a one-on-one interview with The Globe and Mail.

"But the president was very moved by this situation. He made this decision because he felt it was his duty."

Story continues below advertisement

In acting on that decision, he did away with the bureaucratic responses that often make even greater disasters out of tragedy, in cases such as Hurricane Katrina.

Instead, he positioned himself as one of a new generation of business leaders who have found political success - a Chilean Michael Bloomberg.

And he orchestrated an unlikely victory by bringing together a group of people whose pasts similarly suited them to make their own good fortune.

Theirs was, after all, a mission with an overwhelming likelihood of catastrophe.

Experts pegged their initial chances of finding anyone alive at 10 per cent.

Those odds diminished even further two days later, on Aug. 7, when rescue workers only narrowly escaped a secondary collapse that ended all chances of extracting the miners through a ventilation shaft.

Mr. Golborne delivered the news to waiting families, his words catching in his throat.

"The sadness I have," he said in an emotional statement, "is because, obviously, we're not optimistic."

THE ULTIMATE IN MULTITASKING

The Mining Minister arrived at the mine in the early hours of Saturday morning.

Numerous volunteers from numerous companies had flocked to the site, all attempting to rescue the men below.

"There was turmoil," he recalls. "The situation was pretty complicated."

But complications were nothing new to Mr. Golborne, who previously served as CEO of Cencosud S.A., a major clothing, hardware and grocery retailer that competes with Walmart across South America.

Cencosud, he says, "had 100,000 employees operating in five countries. I am used to managing large groups of people to co-ordinate and organize things."

He was also accustomed to thinking ahead. Long before the miners were discovered alive, he had established teams to oversee three aspects of the operation.

One searched for the men, poking 10 small drills deep into the earth in hopes of reaching those trapped. One assessed how to keep them alive if they were found. A third worked on how to rescue them.

They had come up with four possible ways to find them.

The first, through the ventilation shaft, ended with the second collapse.

The second, which involved drilling a new mine ramp, was abandoned because of the instability of the rock.

The third, which would involve tunnelling from an adjacent mine one-and-a-half kilometres away, would have taken eight months - far too long.

That left only the scramble to poke holes and hope to find the men.

One after another, the drills failed to find anyone. Mr. Golborne and the president discussed when they would have to call the operation off. The minister determined it would likely end after 30 days - an eternity for the men below.

But he was motivated to continue in part by the image of two young girls, whom he watched on the day of the second collapse.

"Their eyes filled with tears and they started crying. But it wasn't a desperate cry. It was a very silent one. A cry of impotence." Unlike them, Mr. Golborne thought, he had the power to affect change.

It took 17 uncertain days, but experts had convinced Mr. Golborne that the men were likely still alive. The miners quite likely had access to water, since it's impossible to mine without it. They would have some meagre food supplies. They would have enough air in the several kilometres of tunnels that wind through the 121-year-old mine.

And, most important, there was no scent of finality.

"After a human is dead, after two or three days there's a smell," says Miguel Fortt, a consulting mining engineer who offered his services, having worked on more than a dozen rescues. "And here there was no smell. So they were alive."

WHEN IN DOUBT, CONSULT

The calls for international backup started even before "los 33" were discovered, as Chilean officials worked to canvass the world for ideas.

"We were humble enough," Mr. Pinera said later, "to ask for help."

It was a decision born of a business mindset: If you can't answer the question yourself, get someone who can.

"The Chilean officials said, 'Let's try to identify who the experts are in the field - let's get some consultants in here that can give us the best information possible,'" says Michael Duncan, a deputy chief medical officer with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

He was asked to bring his experience with long-duration space flight to bear on the question of caring for the miners. His advice, and the work of NASA engineers, resulted in the design of the escape capsule, with oxygen masks and monitoring equipment, and the anti-nausea liquid given to the men before their ascent.

Mr. Duncan admires the officials' entrepreneurial mindset. When they needed something for the trapped men to sleep on, they didn't turn to a provider of army cots. Rather, they issued a country-wide appeal and found a suitable cot almost immediately.

"Because of their business acumen, they understood how to innovate. They were not bound by tradition," Mr. Duncan says. "They were so open-minded and looking at all sorts of avenues for finding help."

A RED-LETTER DAY

It was on Aug. 23 that Mr. Pinera raised a shocking note to the television cameras. "Estamos bien in el refugio los 33," it said, scrawled in red: "We are well in the refuge, all 33 of us."

It was undeniable proof that the miners had survived. The country erupted.

Minutes later, Andres Sougarret, the engineer in charge of the rescue, delivered a sobering check: It would take "at least 120 days" to get the men out, he said. He predicted they would not see the surface again until Christmas.

The work that remained was exceptionally difficult. The rock was hard as granite. The hole had to be at least as big as a man's shoulders. It was not an easy task, and those in charge wanted to dampen expectations.

"They made promises they were certain they could deliver on," says Kevin Neveu, the chief executive officer of Precision Drilling. The Calgary-based company's massive oil-and-gas drill was called in on the third attempt to open an escape shaft.

"This was following on the heels of the Gulf of Mexico spill, where they talked about 1,000 barrels a day, then 5,000, then 50,000. Everybody underestimated all the way along, and everyone looked like fools," Mr. Neveu says.

"There's no question - the Chilean authorities here don't look like fools."

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL

The first concrete sign of life came softly. It was the sound of someone knocking on a drill pipe, 700 metres away. It was a moment of hushed ecstasy, a potentially huge breakthrough that was verified soon after, when the miners affixed a note of confirmation to the drill bore.

Mr. Golborne himself untied that note from the bore. As the executive in charge of the rescue, he spent roughly 50 days of the 70-day operation at the site, immersed in even surprisingly mundane details of his task.

Tecno Fast Atco, a joint Chilean-Canadian company, was called upon to provide the 33 modular units that served as the triage and family-meeting areas for the miners after they surfaced.

Before they could install the units at the mine, they received a visit at their Santiago plant. It was Mr. Golborne himself, coming to inspect their work.

As a savvy retailer, the minister also showed a remarkable ability to market his contributions, appearing near daily before the cameras to update the world on their progress.

When the miners were eventually rescued, he and Mr. Pinera personally greeted each one, waiting for a solid 24 hours.

It was a show of support with a substantial payoff: It helped cement approval ratings that have soared during the rescue.

But on that day at the Tecno Fast Atco plant, there were no cameras. It was not a publicity stunt - just an executive ensuring that each detail of a Herculean effort was coming together. Mr. Golborne "checked the units inside, he gave approval to proceed with the design," says Cristian Goldberg, managing director of Tecno Fast Atco.

It was a small moment. But for those who worked on this remarkable rescue, it was in the long accumulation of such moments that Chile's triumph - a near-flawless rescue conducted in front of the eyes of the world - was born.

It was "one of the best-organized jobs we've seen anywhere in the world, of any type of application," says Mr. Neveu. "Notwithstanding where it was, they have set the benchmark for well-managed emergency operations."

Nathan VanderKlippe is a Calgary-based reporter for Report on Business.

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Asia Bureau Chief

Nathan VanderKlippe is the Asia correspondent for The Globe and Mail. He was previously a print and television correspondent in Western Canada based in Calgary, Vancouver and Yellowknife, where he covered the energy industry, aboriginal issues and Canada’s north.He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award and a Best in Business award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers. More

Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at privacy@globeandmail.com.