'We waited for death in the dark and the dust. It was like a movie'
Published 15/10/2010 | 05:00
THE first miner to be rescued from the underground chamber where he and 32 colleagues survived 69 days said he could not begin to recount how awful the experience was.
"There are no words to describe what it was like down there," said Florencio Avalos (31), who was the first to emerge from the Phoenix capsule.
"I want to put it all behind me and move on."
But, to all 33 of the rescued miners, the early days after the rock fall and before rescuers discovered them alive, was "like a movie".
"The first several days, I can't explain it, but we had strength, we had spirit, we wanted to fight," said Luis Urzua, a shift supervisor who was credited with keeping the men alive during the 17 days without contact with the world above.
"We wanted to fight for the sake of our families -- that was the greatest thing. I thought I was in a movie."
Mr Urzua (54), had insisted on being the last to leave the underground chamber that had been the men's home for more than nine weeks -- an act that earned him praise from the president.
"I congratulate you for fulfilling your duty, for leaving last like a ship's captain," Sebastian Pinera told him as he was winched to the surface.
Details of the desperate period the miners spent underground began to emerge as "Los 33" recuperated in hospital in Copiapo, where they had been taken by helicopter following the extraordinary rescue.
Mr Pinera spent several hours with the men listening to their tales from the deep.
"I have heard some of your anecdotes," he said, "and the unity, the faith, the solidarity you showed to work as a team and survive those days has made all of Chile very proud."
One of the miners, Ricardo Villaroel (23), said that after the rock fall they could barely see because of the dust and then they were left "waiting for death".
"Our bodies were consuming themselves," he said. "I was getting skinnier every day. I lost 12kg. I was afraid I would never see my child. There was never talk about cannibalism in those days before we were found, but it later became a joke.
"I did not surrender to death. I had the strength to keep on working."
The wife of Mr Avalos described the emotional reunion and the first face-to-face conversation she shared with her husband in more than two months.
"All he wanted to talk about was how much he missed us," said Monica Araya, 33. "Maybe the time will come when he wants to share what happened down there, but for now he said he can't bear to remember it.
Mrs Araya said her husband had been chosen from those who volunteered to be the first because he was one of the strongest and most experienced in the group.
"He was very brave to make the trip up first and I am so proud of him."
The world watched as Mr Avalos stepped out of the rescue pod into the chill air of the Atacama desert just after midnight local time on Wednesday and took his sobbing son into his arms.
Seven-year-old Bairon reflected on the moment: "I wasn't nervous or scared. I was excited at seeing my father again and then I was happy. I don't know where the tears came from."
As the first group of miners prepared to leave hospital, Mr Pinera promised to help them readjust to normal lives.
"They know very well that we didn't abandon them 700m below ground and that we are not going to do so now they are on the surface," he said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)