SAN SALVADOR — Marisol Flores was a secretary in an architectural firm, working her way through a university business program. Vidal Ventura, the father of two, was a custodian on the third floor of the Ruben Dario building.
When an earthquake convulsed El Salvador's capital 11 days ago, both tried frantically to escape but were caught by collapsing walls and then trapped by five floors that caved in around them.
Flores, 22, and Ventura, 34, hardly knew each other before they were buried together for three days beneath tons of concrete, metal and an office partition that apparently saved their lives.
"I think if Marisol hadn't been there, I would have died of loneliness the first day," said Ventura.
"At first we heard the others crying for help," said Flores. "But after a while we couldn't hear anyone any more."
At least 100 people died in the collapse of their building, and rescue workers are still searching for more bodies inside.
Flores and Ventura were inches apart in the dark, with no sense of day or night, hot, thirsty, afraid they would never be found. They were immobile, in excruciating pain, each with a leg crushed by concrete. A fallen partition created a small cubicle for them.
They reassured each other as one would lose hope and then the other. They fanned each other against the stifling heat.
"We would talk," Flores said. "At first he said no one would get us out. I said yes. He said he wanted to commit suicide. I told him no and cried."
They began to hear workmen chipping away at the rubble, but their screams also were buried beneath the blocks of cement.
'We Are Alive'
"We called, 'Senores, s enores, we are alive! Come for us!' " Ventura said.
No one came.
"I was desperate," said Flores, a slender, attractive woman with almond eyes and high cheekbones.
"It was Friday, Saturday, Sunday, then Sunday night," said Ventura. "Then we thought it was difficult for anyone to get us out, and we were afraid they would start the demolition. Then we didn't hear the hammering any more."
To quell their unbearable thirst, Ventura said, they drank their urine. He ate paper to try to produce saliva.
Under the rubble, Flores lay face up on her back. Ventura was doubled over a sofa, with metal scraps jabbing into his back. Next to him he found a can of typewriter oil.
"I couldn't take the thirst any more. In desperation, I took two gulps of the oil. . . . I was in agony," he said.
The pain made sleep impossible for both.
Flores and Ventura had no idea what the rest of the city might look like. Nor did they know then that scores of people had died in the Ruben Dario Building.
Flores worried about her mother and boyfriend, who, she could not know, were camped outside the ruined building, keeping faith that she was alive.
Ventura worried about his wife, his 3-year-old son and 7-month daughter. A local newspaper already had reported his death to them.
Ventura is a slight man with a wide smile and buck teeth. He said shyly, "I kept thinking, I don't drink, I don't smoke, and I am not corrupt. Why am I suffering so much?"
On Monday, Oct. 13, three days after the quake hit, Ventura slipped into unconsciousness, leaving Flores alone in the dark.
They had said that dead or alive, they would get out together. It was beginning to look like it might be a shared death.
Rescue at Last
But hours later, workmen put down their jackhammers and electric saws and finally, one heard Flores' cries.
Flores and Ventura were rescued later that day.
"What joy," Flores said recalling her rescue. "It seemed incredible to me."
"I was so happy to see the daylight," Ventura said of waking up in the hospital.
Each had a badly mangled leg amputated, but both now appear strong when talking about the future. Flores wants to return to her studies, Ventura to his family.
They are in separate wards of the public Rosales Hospital. They have seen each other once since their rescue.
"We were overcome with emotion," Ventura said . "All I could do was cry."