Oldest Chilean Miner Speaks About Rescue

Mario Gomez spent nearly two months trapped underground in a Chilean mine. He and other miners are now talking about some of their ordeal. They are saving the best parts for a book deal they hope to get.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

In Chile, the rescued mine workers are beginning to tell what life was like trapped underground. They say they're saving the best part for a book deal they hope to get. And they plan to divide equally any fees earned through television appearances. Still, Annie Murphy managed to speak with the oldest of the miners.

ANNIE MURPHY: Mario Gomez has carefully prepared for his TV interviews; he's clean-shaven, dressed in chinos, a spotless hooded sweatshirt and loafers. In a makeshift dressing room, he hovers near his wife, Lillian Ramirez. when I ask him to talk for a few minutes, he looks to her for the okay. She consents, then stands behind him, gently tugging Gomez's sleeve at any topic he can't discuss - half censor, half guardian. At intervals, Gomez reaches back to pat his wife's arm. He says he still can't believe he's back with his family.

MARIO GOMEZ: (Through Translator) There's no way to describe the happiness of seeing our families again, after having gone through 70 days of captivity and coming back into the sunlight. Because there were moments when we thought we would never see the daylight again.

MURPHY: For more than two months, the men experienced fear, doubt and desperation. But Gomez says that nothing was worse than the day the mine collapsed.

GOMEZ: (Through Translator) August the 5th. That was the most terrible day. In the middle of the cave-in, I thought that we'd never get out of there again. It felt like the mountain was exploding all around us. It cracked, it moved, it stretched like chewing gum. This went on for about 20 minutes.

MURPHY: A thick cloud of dust followed, lasting for hours. Once it started to lift, the men looked for an escape. The San Jose mine is huge, with underground roads, and vehicles. Gomez piled into a truck with the others, but they were soon stopped by an immense rock blocking their path. They had no choice but to return below and steel themselves for the unknown.

GOMEZ: (Through Translator) And then we began to go back down and look for the safest part. Which was the refuge, this was our hiding place.

MURPHY: Gomez won't say much about life in that safe area. The men plan to write a book together, and for now they've agreed not to talk about their first weeks there, in the hopes that it will help them earn more.

GOMEZ: (Through Translator) All we could do was wait until the probes were sent down. It was our faith and the hope of seeing our families again, that's what kept us going.

MURPHY: Those first weeks were charged and intense. The men divided into rival groups. One, the regular mine employees; the other, subcontracted workers. They slept in different areas of the mine and sought different exit routes.

Somehow, perhaps miraculously, they made it through. Maybe just as amazing, is that after all that, many of the men say they're going back to mining.

GOMEZ: (Through Translator) It gets in your blood, and that's what pulls, pulls, pulls you into the mine.

MURPHY: Carlos Barrios, Esteban Rojas, Ariel Ticona, and Victor Zamora, all said they'll go back to mining during a recent television appearance. Gomez believes it's because they're young, just starting out, and without a lot of alternatives. But he isn't going to join them.

GOMEZ: (Through Translator) No. I'm 63 and I think I've finished my career in mining, because I was really young when I began to work deep underground. Forty, 50 years of working in a mine, I think that's enough.

MURPHY: Gomez says now he'll work on his hobby - mechanics - and spend time with his wife, daughters, and grandchildren. He and his wife have had a civil marriage for 30 years. But in a few weeks, the couple will wed in a church ceremony. It will happen on Gomez's 64th birthday.

For NPR News, I'm Annie Murphy in Copiapó, Chile.

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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