Secrets unsealed: the despair before discovery

PineraDespite the talk of hope and unity, the early days were filled with dread, write Jonathan Franklin and Juan Forero. 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 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 the century-old mine.

”We were wasting away. We were so skinny. I lost 11 kilos. 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, Villarroel described the anguish among the 33 trapped men after the collapse on August 5 sealed all exits from 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 the 22-hour rescue operation on Wednesday. His account of life inside the mine came before ”Los 33”, as they are now known, were examined in a hospital in Copiapo.

Despite their ordeal, the miners were generally in good condition and spirits, said Jorge Montes, the hospital’s deputy director. ”We don’t see any problems from a medical point of view.”

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. 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 the President, Sebastian Pinera, and the government.

Luis Urzua, 54, the shift 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, Villarroel 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

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