They were five companies of conscripts, 485 young men from a Chilean city called Los Angeles, in the shadow of the winter-white Andes.
Their orders were simple: Hike into the snow on an 18-mile training march around the base of the massive Antuco volcano. Their commander, Maj. Patricio Cereceda, may have been unaware of or unconcerned about the storm warning issued by Chile’s meteorological service.
Only one of the five companies that set off Wednesday in a steady rain was outfitted with mountain survival gear. Over the next several hours, as the rain turned into curtains of snow, groups of men became lost in what one Chilean army officer called a “white tsunami.” At least 26 soldiers would die of exposure.
On Monday, 19 soldiers were still missing and feared dead in the worst peacetime disaster in Chilean military history.
Most of the soldiers were teenagers who were drafted into the army less than two months ago. The tragedy is leading many here to call for the abolition of the draft and the creation of an all-volunteer army.
“Only a miracle will allow us to find any survivors,” Gen. Juan Emilio Cheyre, commander in chief of the army, said Monday.
A preliminary investigation has found the tragedy to have been entirely preventable, the result of a series of errors by Cereceda and his superiors in the Los Angeles-based 17th Mountain Regiment. And one company of about 100 soldiers may have saved themselves because they mutinied against their commanding officers at the height of the blizzard.
“I survived only by following the shouts of the people in front of me,” one solider told La Tercera newspaper, recalling the desperation of one company that became lost in the snow.
The five companies set off Wednesday morning from a mountain base called Los Barros, heading for another base called La Cortina.
Five hours into the march, a winter storm came rushing in, just as meteorologists in Los Angeles and Santiago had predicted. The temperature dropped rapidly, with wind gusts of up to 50 mph. The windchill factor was 2 degrees.
“At first, everything was fine,” another teenager told the newspaper El Mercurio. “Then the snow came and it turned dark. We couldn’t see our hands in front of us.... It was cold, very cold, and I could only think about my mother and pray to God to escape.”
One company was outfitted with winter gear, but the other four had little more than parkas and wool caps.
As the conditions worsened, one group of soldiers turned back to Los Barros, where they would wait days to be rescued. Another group slogged through the blizzard to La Cortina.
That left the remnants of two companies stranded in the blinding snow about five miles from the safety of La Cortina. Those men soon broke up into smaller and smaller groups.
“I could see my comrades falling and being left behind in the snow,” soldier Gustavo Alvarez told reporters. “At one moment, I decided I would stay there with them because I couldn’t go on, but our instructor gave me courage to keep going.”
Alvarez said he didn’t stop to help the fallen men because “it was my life or theirs.”
With the storm still raging, commanding officers at the Los Barros refuge ordered their men to prepare to go back outside. Afraid of being stranded, the officers wanted to reach another refuge farther down the mountain. But a group of soldiers persuaded the rest of the company to disobey what they said was a reckless order, according to news reports here.
Chile’s top military leaders said the officers in charge of the 17th Mountain Regiment had committed serious mistakes. Cereceda and two others have been relieved of duty for “errors of judgment and lack of professionalism” and probably will face a court-martial, Cheyre said.
Across the country, political leaders expressed outrage at the tragedy.
“We need a serious study of the structure of our military service, of the training regime and the instruction given to officers who teach our recruits,” said Antonio Leal, a congressman and member of the Socialist Party, part of the ruling coalition.
The Independent Democratic Union called for a “100% volunteer army.” Two-year military service is now obligatory for all men at the age of 18, although there are many exemptions.
On Monday, special units with dogs and 6-foot steel probes searched for the 19 men believed buried deep in the snow.
Of the 26 bodies recovered so far, most were found face down in the snow, suggesting that they had collapsed as they marched. Others had managed to crawl into their sleeping bags, or had tried to unfurl their tents. A few were standing in deep snow drifts, still holding their rifles.
The body of Sgt. Luis Morales was found in a frozen embrace with one of his charges, an enlisted man.
Margarita Henriquez lost her son, Cristian Herrera, and her nephew, Ignacio Vallejos, who had joined the military together.
“I knitted my son’s sweater myself, but the water would go right through it,” Henriquez said. “They found their bodies next to each other."*
Times staff writer Tobar reported from Buenos Aires and special correspondent Vergara from Santiago.