Dehydrated and hungry, aware the ceiling of their tiny sanctuary was crumbling, 24 trapped cleaning workers knew help was coming - but were not sure it would arrive before they ran out of time and luck.
Finally, after 52 hours trapped in darkness, a rescuer slipped into the room where they had been changing out of their cleaning uniforms when the shopping mall above collapsed into rubble Thursday night.
Greased with vegetable oil and liquid soap, they slithered to safety Saturday, crawling through a twisting, 130-foot tunnel that in places was only 16 inches high. The tunnel had taken rescue workers 13 1/2 hours to create.
When the first survivor emerged into the glare of floodlights and camera flashes, applause broke out among the hundreds of relatives, rescue workers and journalists who waited to savor this moment, fearing it would never come.
“They seemed to be in good condition,” said Lee Pong-hee, a 33-year-old rescue worker.
One woman fainted after she found her husband among the survivors.
“Some people were drinking urine to fight dehydration, but I couldn’t do it,” 64-year-old Park Chun-hwa said from her hospital bed, surrounded by her four daughters. “I lived through this, I can get through anything.”
It was a rare moment of joy and relief amid the tragedy and tears that have dominated since a five-story wing of the ritzy Sampoong Department Store caved in Thursday evening on more than 1,000 people.
The massive collapse killed 133 people and injured 910 others. About 60 people were pulled out alive earlier, but more than 200 remain unaccounted for.
Among the missing was Frank Bakes, a 58-year-old engineer from Oradell, N.J., who had gone to the mall just before the collapse.
For the rescue workers, the elation was followed by the realization that more exhausting work remained if they wanted anything else to celebrate.
Knowing time was running out, feverish efforts continued through the night to save more than two dozen people believed alive in three other pockets.
Officials blamed the disaster on shoddy construction and arrested four executives of the shopping complex on negligence charges. Police said they knew the top floor was crumbling hours before the disaster but decided not to close and left without warning anyone.
A shift change turned out to be a lifesaver for the cleaners. The 14 women and 10 men, most in their 50s, had gone to two dressing rooms next to an outside wall. Seconds later, the wall was still standing, but the rest of the wing was gone.
Only one of the cleaners was injured, but the woman’s room began filling with smoke, so they broke through a window into the men’s room.
Then came the wait.
The survivors pinched each other, afraid that if they fell asleep, they might die. Their stomachs rumbled and their throats quickly became parched.
When they finally heard the voice of a rescue worker, cheers erupted.
But the waiting was far from over. Rescue workers, afraid heavy equipment could cause the shaky rubble to collapse, began to painstakingly clear a tunnel with electric saws, torches, car jacks and their hands.
A long steel pipe was sent down to provide fresh air, water and food.
Finally, a hole was punched through and a rescue worker crawled in and helped boost each survivor out.
Once out of the tunnel, all but two were carried the last few yards to the surface piggyback, which rescue workers said indicated they had no major injuries. One man tried to walk out but staggered and was carried the rest of the way.
The survivors were wrapped in blankets and taken to waiting ambulances, many covering their eyes with towels against the intense light from camera flashes and floodlights.
Officials had almost abandoned hope of finding more survivors, after thick plumes of toxic smoke from fires set off by crushed cars in basement parking lots blanketed the rubble.
They later discovered the fire had started in the second basement parking lot, raising the possibility that survivors in the lower basements were not killed by the smoke.