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Deep-Slime Divers Keep Vast and Smelly Sewers Flowing

His adventure, as he calls it, was at this moment leading him to large pieces of wood floating dangerously close to the pump pushing the waste of a city of 20 million to treatment plants. Who knows how the lumber -- or for that matter, the plastic bags, toothpaste tubes, shoes and other discards -- ended up here? Perhaps some poor family's shack was washed away by heavy rains and flowed into the sewers.

Barrios snagged one beam, then another, with a hooked crowbar, putting them in a steel cage that hauled them to the surface.

Carlos Barrios Orta is one of the divers who maintain Mexico City's 600-mile-long sewer system, clearing out debris so it won't back up into streets. (Mary Jordan -- The Washington Post)

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The scariest thing, Barrios said, was when his gloves felt what he thought was a human arm. He radioed that he feared he was bringing up a dead child. "But it turned out to be a teddy bear," he said. "It was such a relief."

For this, Barrios earns about $480 a month. It's not much, certainly -- his diving helmet alone cost the city $3,500 -- but it's more than he ever made as an accountant. He has never been sick, but his wife and children love to kid him when he comes home from a day in the sewers, shouting, "Don't come near me!"

Barrios is a compact man, not quite 5-feet-6, with an easy smile. He swims competitively, and dreams that when his young children finish school, he can move to the sea, perhaps on the Gulf of Mexico, to swim and dive in crystal-clear waters. But for the moment, he said, he's happy to know that while there are millions of divers in the oceans, only four have the privilege of diving in the Mexico City sewer system.

About a half hour after he lowered himself into the water, Barrios broke the surface. Cu and some others raised him to street level in a steel basket. Barrios said he felt great as Cu tossed buckets of soapy water on him to get the gunk off his diving suit. Barrios then peeled himself out of it, and he and Cu stowed their equipment for the next dive.

Lunchtime. Barrios said he had sure worked up an appetite down there.

He was ready for a taco.

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