Nicaraguan rescuers have saved 22 of at least 26 workers trapped in a mine collapse and were working Saturday to free the rest, officials said.
First Lady Rosario Murillo said 20 of the miners were freed late Friday, in addition to two who made their way to safety shortly after a Thursday morning collapse cut off the exit at the El Comal gold and silver mine in the town of Bonanza left them cut off in a mine shaft.
Rescued miner Marvin Urbina, 34, said he and some of his fellow miners saw an avalanche of mud and rock coming their way. They stuck to the walls of the mine but at least four of their co-workers were crushed by the mud and rock streaming down the shaft, he said.
"I asked God to let me live and he listened to me and now I will serve Him," an emotional Urbina told Channel 6.
Interior Vice Minister Carlos Najar said the miners were a bit dehydrated but in good health.
"They are coming out little by little, it's a slow process but we want to make sure they can get out safely," Najar told Channel 6 state television. He added that more of the miners are expected to be rescued overnight.
The miners were checked by paramedics and taken to a clinic in Bonanza, about 260 miles (420 kilometers) northeast of Managua.
Hundreds of relatives and fellow miners had gathered to pray outside the mine as rescuers lined up several 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.
Commander Javier Amaya of the rescue team said the rescue plan involved groups "of five or 10 miners entering the mine on wooden ladders, tying themselves off and going in until they reach them."
Outside the mine, Jorge Hernandez, 25, said he learned his brother was one of the miners trapped while watching television in Nicaragua's capital, Managua. He rushed to Bonanza.
"We're praying to God with all of our souls so that my brother and the other men can be rescued alive and well," he said. He added that his brother Michael, 24, moved to Bonanza from Managua last year to work in the mine.
It was unclear if he was one of those rescued.
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.