BONANZA, Nicaragua — Rescue workers and trapped miners alike frantically dug away at opposite sides of rock and mud that blocked a Nicaragua gold mine, finally succeeding in freeing at least 20 men even as efforts to reach those still missing continued Saturday.
Antonio Diaz said the miners tried to cheer each other up inside the dark, cold shaft, attacking the slide with their picks and shovels by the light of helmet lamps. But after 24 hours, they began feeling hungry and some started losing hope.
"I kept thinking I was too young to die and above all, I thought about my two daughters," the 32-year-old miner said from a hospital bed in the town of Bonanza, near the El Comal gold and silver mine.
He said the miners finally cut a hole through the blockage and started shouting, but at first there was no answer.
"Hours later, someone heard, and when he answered us we felt life coming back into our bodies," Diaz said. "God had answered our pleas to keep living."
Bonanza Mayor Alexander Alvarado, a former miner who participated in the rescue efforts, said it took about 100 men working around the clock to reach those trapped and even then, it took about another two hours to bring the first miner out to safety.
"We kept telling them their families were waiting for them and to know that God was with them and was giving them a second chance in life," Alvarado said.
Two of the freelance miners escaped slightly after the Thursday morning slide, and officials said another 20 were brought out late Friday. Mirta Lagos, an official of the ruling Sandinista Party who was at the site, said five families reported they have a relative missing.
The rescued miners were checked by paramedics and taken to a clinic in Bonanza, about 260 miles (420 kilometers) northeast of Managua. Interior Vice Minister Carlos Najar said they were a bit dehydrated but in good health.
Hundreds of relatives and fellow miners had gathered to pray outside the mine as rescuers lined up ladders along a 200-foot long tunnel leading toward where the men were trapped. The mine cuts into the side of a mountain and then goes upward.
The gold and silver mine is on a concession held by Hemco, which is owned by Colombia-based Minero SA. But the trapped miners themselves are freelancers allowed to work in the area if they sell any gold they find to the firm, mining company spokesman Gregorio Downs told The Associated Press.
Downs said the company had warned miners about the danger of working in the El Comal area, especially after two miners died in a rain-caused landslide there last month.
"We live by extracting mineral from Hemco. They told us digging here was risky, but sometimes one is willing to risk it for a few more cents," said Absalon Toledo, leader of the informal miners.
According to the Hemco's website, the company has mined in the north Atlantic municipality since 1995 and employs 532 workers, who process 700 tons of material a day. The company says it produces more than 2,500 pounds (1,150 kilograms, 37,000 troy ounces) of gold a year and is Nicaragua's 12th largest exporter.
Luis Manuel Galeano reported from Managua. Associated Press writer Olga R. Rodriguez contributed from Mexico City.