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Miners talk of tensions during ordeal

By Michael Martinez, CNN
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Chilean miners talk to Anderson Cooper
  • Miner recounts how food rationing was a "delicate" matter
  • At times, miners felt panic but not "a mass panic," one says
  • The 33 miners are seeking a book or movie deal -- possibly both

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Los Angeles, California (CNN) -- Speaking for the first time about some of the more heated moments during 69 days trapped in a Chilean mine, one of the 33 rescued miners told CNN Saturday that food became controversial.

The miners agreed to ration canned fish, sometimes as small as a bottle cap a day, but the issue of eating caused tension, said Juan Illanes, 52, an electrical mechanic and former Chilean serviceman.

"It was a topic that was very, very delicate at the time," Illanes told CNN's Anderson Cooper.

He, four other miners and two of the rescuers spoke of their experiences in a CNN interview.

On other occasions, the miners felt panic. During their first 17 August days in a collapsed mine, the outside world had no contact with the miners, and many thought they were dead.

Even after rescuers made contact with the miners, many days proved difficult as rescue plans suffered setbacks.

"After a while, we sometimes felt panic, but it wasn't a mass panic," Illanes said. "There was always good will among us. We always had meetings, and we did it in a conversational manner, and that's what kept us calm."

Their 69 days below ground was the longest mining captivity in history. Illanes' accounts provided a glimpse into the hardship of being trapped in a hot, dark mine where helmet lamps provided the only illumination.

The miners haven't said much publicly about some of the more harrowing moments of their ordeal because they are now seeking to do a book, movie or both about their experience, said miner Mario Sepulveda.

While among the better paying jobs in Chile, a miner typically makes about $1,000 a month, and the miners have yet to return to work since their rescue, Sepulveda said.

The 33 miners from Chile and five of the six underground rescuers are in Los Angeles this week for their first group visit to a foreign country since being freed last month.

They were invited by CNN to attend the network's annual "Heroes" program, to air worldwide on Thanksgiving evening. Cooper is hosting the program.

Illanes vowed Saturday to never work again in the San Jose mine in the desertlike Atacama region of northern Chile.

"To that mine, no," said Illanes. "Any other mine, yes, but only on the surface."

But Sepulveda said he would return to the mine, which holds deposits of gold and copper.

"I would go back to the mine," as long as there's better security, Sepulveda said.

During the 69-day entombment, Mario Gomez -- at 63, the oldest of the miners -- wrote a love letter to his wife. He pledged to give her a ceremony she never had -- a church wedding.

"I spoke to her from here -- from the heart," said Gomez, who has been mining since he was 12. "We have been married 32 years, and the letters said things that I said only a few times during our marriage -- how much I love her."

"I said, if I come out alive, I promised her we would get a sanctified marriage," Gomez added.

Though a veteran miner, the worst day for Gomez was the first one -- when dense dust kept vision to 20 inches. The miners could feel the air being sucked out of the shaft.

"The first day," Gomez said, "I thought it was the end. It was the magnitude of noise and dust at that moment. But then five, six hours later, it became quieter."

The youngest miner, Jimmy Sanchez, 18, also initially thought that all was lost.

Chilean miners arrive in Los Angeles

"I thought I was going to die," said Sanchez, who had begun work as a miner only four months earlier. "The only thing I could think about was my family, God and God's help."

Sanchez proposed to his girlfriend while underground. On Saturday, he said the proposal was off because she doesn't want to get married.

Jose Ojeda, 46, a diabetic miner whose medicine had to be sent down from the surface, said faith enabled him to endure.

"I felt serenity with God, and that helped me through," Ojeda said.

Manuel Gonzalez was the first of six rescuers to enter the mine. The miners were so ecstatic to him that the celebration seemed a carnival.

Sepulveda joked that the miners hugged him as if he were a woman.

"We were men who spent almost 70 days together," Sepulveda said. "I thought he was beautiful, more handsome than ever."

Gonzalez said he felt more anxiety than fear about the rescue.

"We had no idea of what was going to happen," Gonzalez said.

The second rescuer to descend, Roberto Rios, carried with him a flag that said "Mission Accomplished," which the miners brought back to the surface. Rios, 34, is in the Chilean special forces, and his job is similar to a U.S. Navy SEAL.

"I wasn't afraid for my health. I was focused on the mission," Rios said. "I want to thank God that our mission was accomplished."

The rescuers and miners traveled through a freshly bored tunnel in a capsule dubbed the Phoenix.

"It was a calm ride down. The condition of the hole was good, and the Phoenix was an amazing capsule. It was a good trip," Rios said.

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