In weeks before rescuers made contact, miners struggled with despair

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.

Some of the men were so sure death was near that they simply climbed into cots in the cavern and would not get up. He described being overwhelmed with the dread of never again seeing his doting mother, Antonia Godoy, or meeting the boy his pregnant wife is carrying.

Sitting in bed in a field hospital, as nurses and doctors scurried from one miner to the other, Villaroel had a blanket over him to ward off the cold of this dry, mountainous region. He appeared healthy but dazed after the 69-day ordeal and spoke with little emotion.

He said that the ever-present possibility of starving to death haunted the miners as their days disconnected from the world above stretched into one week, then two.

"We were getting eaten up," he said, meaning that with little food, the miners were quickly losing weight and muscle mass. "We were moving but not eating well. We started to . . . get skinnier and skinnier."

The dire situation would later lead to dark jokes about cannibalism, he said. "At that moment, no one talked about it," he said. "But once it was over, it became a topic of joking, but only once it was over, once they found us."

What gave the miners hope was when the borehole drilled through the rock finally reached them. Before that, he said, the "probes were so far away so we had no hope."

Despite the odds, Villarroel said the group tried to focus on finding ways to endure, thanks to stoic leaders such as the foreman, Urzua. He is credited with ensuring that the rations the men had - just 48 hours' worth - lasted for many more days.

That meant only half a spoonful a day of tuna per man. "About three-quarters of this cap," Villarroel explained, pointed to the screw-off top of a soda bottle.

"We talked about it at the first meeting we had when we were trapped," he said. "We all agreed that we would all share the food that was there, but rationing. You just had to rough it. Every 24 hours, eat a small piece of tuna. Nothing else."

He recounted how they had plenty of water but that it had an oily taste, as it had been intended for maintaining machinery. "You had to drink it," Villarroel said.

The men split into groups, each with a special task. Villarroel was in charge of maintaining the electrical system. He also talked about the positive role of older, more experienced and hard-bitten men such as Jose Henriquez, 56, a miner trained to perforate holes who is also an evangelical pastor.

"I had never prayed before," Villarroel said. Then, 17 days after the mine collapsed, a drill bit chewed a narrow hole from the surface all the way to the roof of the mine.

It was 6:30 a.m., Villarroel said, and he was playing dominoes. He grabbed a wrench and began clanging on the bit, a faint message that told rescuers above that they had reached the miners.

Overjoyed, the miners sang the national anthem.

The narrow hole would be the miners' connection to the world above for the next eight weeks, a lifeline rescuers used to lower food and medicine until they could excavate an escape shaft and hoist Los 33 to freedom.

Franklin is a special correspondent.

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