In weeks before rescuers made contact, miners struggled with despair

In a flawless operation that unfolded before a hopeful, transfixed world, 33 miners who were trapped for more than two months deep beneath the Chilean earth were raised one by one Wednesday through a smooth-walled shaft of rock. (Oct. 13)
By Jonathan Franklin and Juan Forero
Friday, October 15, 2010; 12:36 AM

SAN JOSE MINE, CHILE - When the world came crashing down, Richard Villarroel thought he would be entombed forever, with little chance that rescuers would ever reach him in a dark chamber 2,050 feet under the Atacama Desert.

"We were waiting for death," said Villarroel, 26, who had lied to his mother about the work he had landed in this century-old mine. "We were wasting away. We were so skinny. I lost 26 pounds. I was afraid of not meeting my baby, who is on the way. That was what I was most waiting for."

In an extensive interview with The Washington Post, Villarroel described the anguish among the 33 trapped men after the Aug. 5 collapse sealed all exits out of the craggy cavity where they had gathered to prepare for lunch.

It would take two weeks for a borehole to reach them and another eight before they would see sunlight.

Villarroel was the 28th miner lifted from the depths in a 22-hour rescue operation Wednesday that extricated all of the miners and captivated a global television audience. His account of life inside the mine came before "Los 33," as they are now immortalized, were examined in a hospital in Copiapo, a small, dusty city that became the epicenter of joyous celebrations.

Despite their ordeal, the miners were generally in good condition and spirits Thursday, said Jorge Montes, the hospital's deputy director. "We don't see any problems from a medical point of view," he said at a news conference.

Two miners and relatives said the men had made a pact to keep secret the discord that was a part of their struggle. But Daniel Sanderson, a miner whose shift had ended hours before the disaster, said he later received a letter from one of the trapped men in which he recounted disagreements that led to blows.

"There were fistfights," Sanderson said in an interview. He would not reveal what the fights were about.

Many of the miners, in comments after the rescue, repeated a message of unity and hope under near-impossible circumstances, the same theme of solidarity offered by President Sebastian Pinera's government.

Luis Urzua, 54, the foreman and a natural leader who was the last man rescued, said the large chamber where the men were trapped became a "democracy."

"Everything was voted on," he said. "We were 33 men, so 16 plus one was a majority."

But Villarroel spoke of the intense fear and despair before rescuers made contact.

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