LOS ANGELES, Chile – Forty-one soldiers lost in a "snow tsunami" on the peaks of the Andes (search) are "most probably dead," the army's top commander said Friday as survivors spoke tearfully of leaving behind comrades too exhausted to make it out of the blizzard.
The soldiers — 40 young draftees and one officer — hadn't been seen since Wednesday, when the worst storm the area has seen in decades slammed into a training march through the mountains.
The weather cleared enough Friday for 14 rescue patrols to search for the missing, but not for helicopters to join them.
Later Friday, Chile President Ricardo Lagos (search) addressed the nation to announce that the patrols were returning with "13 bodies." He said it wasn't clear if they included four who had already been confirmed dead.
"We are all sad for those Chilean young men who died in the mountain," Lagos said, and declared a three-day mourning for them.
The army chief, Gen. Emilio Cheyre (search), joined the search, but emerged from the mountains late Friday to announce that the missing soldiers were probably dead. Much of the area was under 6 feet of snow.
"But we will continue to work hard to bring them, dead or alive, to us and to their families," he said.
Cheyre removed from their posts the top three commanders of the regiment to which the soldiers belonged and ordered an investigation into their actions.
"The march should not have been started, never, under those weather conditions. It was the worst snowstorm in 30 years. And if it was started, it should have been suspended," he said. "Those were officers specialized in mountaineering, and they should have known better."
Dozens of soldiers initially reported missing have been located over the past two days, and many were recovering at their regiment's headquarters in Los Angeles, 400 miles south of Santiago.
Army Pvt. Juan Millar, 18, recounted how he was blinded by the swirling snow and couldn't stand straight when his lieutenant ordered the unit to drop their heavy backpacks and make their way to safety any way they could — an order that may have saved his life.
As Millar picked his way through the knee-high snow, he watched comrades — exhausted from the march and disoriented by the blizzard — tumble into drifts. More experienced corporals pulled some of them onto sleeping bags, which they used as sleds to pull them down the slopes.
But most of the soldiers were teenagers who began their military service just last month, and had little experience with the fury of such a storm. Millar, recovering at headquarters, is haunted by the idea that some of the buddies he saw fall never got up.
"They just stayed in the snow," he said. "The corporals had to abandon them to save their own lives."
A captain who was found Friday, Claudio Gutierrez, refused to come down from the mountain and instead took up the search for the others, officials said. Cheyre ordered another 110 soldiers who made it to a shelter in the mountains to remain there until the weather clears enough to get them out safely.
Relatives of the missing huddled together in the gymnasium of Mountain Regiment 17, the base for the 485-soldier battalion that was caught in the storm. Many accused the army of keeping information from them, but officials insisted they knew as little as the families.
Cheyre said he had ordered the army to help the victims' families in every way possible. But relatives said the army wasn't doing enough.
"They are only concerned about the officers, not the soldiers," Jose Contreras, whose 18-year-old son was among the missing, told Radio Cooperativa of Santiago.
A news conference by the regional army commander, Gen. Rodolfo Gonzalez, was interrupted Friday by relatives shouting insults. When calm was restored, Gonzalez told them the army was doing what it could.
"There were cases up there in the mountain in which a corporal, a sergeant, put soldiers into their sleeping bags and dragged them down like on sleds — up to three of them at a time," Gonzalez said.
Surviving soldiers, most of whom obeyed orders not to give their names to the news media, backed up his account.
"At one point, I fell to the ground and nearly fainted. But the lieutenant told us to drop our backpacks and save our lives," Millar said. Without the 100-pound pack, he was able to stand and make his way toward safety.
"I looked back and saw some comrades fall. The corporals picked them up," Millar said. "But when they couldn't help any more ... I didn't want to look."
The young private was part of a group of 30 soldiers that found a shelter to wait out the worst of the storm. He said he would always be haunted by the idea that he couldn't help his buddies.
"I just looked forward," said another soldier who wouldn't give his name. "I didn't want to look to the side or back, so I wouldn't see my comrades falling."
The survivors were generally in good condition, though some had eye and skin problems caused by the snow and low temperatures.
"He's well," said Dionisia Llanos, embracing her grandson Jorge Rivas. "My baby is healthy."