LOS ANGELES, Chile – Young Chilean soldiers who made it out of a blizzard alive said they had to leave behind comrades who collapsed from exhaustion and cold.
The soldiers were on a training march in the Andes Mountains (search) Wednesday when hit by the worst snowstorm in the area in decades. As many as 41 soldiers — 40 draftees and one officer — were believed to have died.
The weather cleared enough Friday for rescue patrols to search for the missing, but not for helicopters to join them.
Chile President Ricardo Lagos (search) later announced 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, 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 six 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."
Army Pvt. Juan Millar, 18, said it was snowing so hard he couldn't see. Just when he felt he could go no farther, his lieutenant ordered the unit to drop their 100-pound backpacks.
"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.
As Millar trudged through the knee-high snow, he watched comrades — exhausted and disoriented — 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."
In Los Angeles, 400 miles south of Santiago (search), relatives gathered at the headquarters of Mountain Regiment 17. Some accused the army of not 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.
Initially nearly 100 members of the 485-soldier regiment were missing, but dozens had been located over the previous two days.
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.
A news conference by the regional army commander, Gen. Rodolfo Gonzalez (search), 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.
"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.
"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.