, SAN JOSE MINE, Oct 13 – Rescue workers in Chile by early on Wednesday had lifted to safety nearly a third of the 33 miners trapped deep underground, in an historic and complex operation carried off without a hitch.
Alex Vega Salazar became the 10th miner brought to the surface in nearly as many hours, crossing himself repeatedly as he emerged into the morning light after spending nearly 70 days in the dank, dark underground cavern.
Like the nine men before him, Vega was greeted by jubilant relatives and officials in a triumphant spectacle watched around the world by television viewers captivated by the saga of miners who had survived more time underground than anyone in history.
The methodical rescue kicked off around midnight when 31-year-old Florencio Avalos was the first miner to step out into the fresh air from the special rescue capsule used to haul the men up through 622 meters (2,041 feet) of rock.
As lights flashed through the sky and the awaiting crowd blew celebratory horns, Avalos hugged his seven-year-old son, his wife Monica, then Chilean President Sebastian Pinera and other officials before being taken to hospital for medical tests.
A second miner, Mario Sepulveda, 40, soon followed, admitting: "I have been with God and with the devil. I fought between the two. I seized the hand of God, it was the best hand. I always knew God would get us out of there."
Sepulveda delighted the crowds by producing rocks as ironic gifts from a sack before leading the congregation of officials, relatives and rescuers in an impromptu, celebratory chant.
Health Minister Jaime Manalich told reporters that the rescue operation had gone "better than planned," adding the workers\’ health conditions were "pretty good."
The landmark operation saw a miner emerge every hour as the rescue capsule decked out in the Chile\’s national colours – red, white and blue – climbed and descended to the cavern where the 33 had been trapped since an August cave-in.
Among the first half-dozen out were Carlos Mamani, a 23-year-old Bolivian who was the only person in the group not from Chile, and Jimmy Sanchez, who at 19 was the youngest of the trapped men.
The seventh miner to reach freedom, 46-year-old Jose Ojeda, appeared healthy upon his arrival at the surface, despite earlier worries because of his diabetes he was at risk of illness.
The men\’s rescue was the culmination of a record-breaking two-month drama, during which the 33 men awaited rescue at the bottom of the mine with the world captivated by their daily hopes and fears.
Pinera, whose short presidency had been totally consumed by the drama of the mine workers, said the operation was "without comparison in the history of humanity."
He added that all of Chile had learned from the miners "the value of faith and of hope, the value of comradeship and solidarity."
Hundreds of relatives, who maintained an anxious vigil in a makeshift tent city that has sprung up at the remote gold and copper mine in the northern Chile desert, cheered and wept at each escape.
The family of Avalos watched the moment he stepped free on live television, rising and clapping with tears in their eyes.
His father Alfonso raised his arms in triumph before hugging his wife, his face creased with emotion as he exclaimed: "It\’s a huge joy. I\’m so happy."
But then the hundreds of journalists covering the moment crowded around them, jostling so forcefully to get an interview they toppled the tent and trampled each other.
The media scrum then moved on to crowd the family of the following miners. A forest of cameras and lights were pointed at the tent where Mamani\’s relatives were located.
The miners have survived deep underground longer than anyone before them after being trapped on August 5 when the upper galleries of the mine collapsed.
For 17 days they were all but given up for dead, before a drill probe found them and they were able to attach a note to it, announcing the extraordinary news that they were all alive and well.
They had survived by strictly rationing their food and water, and had found refuge in an emergency shelter.
Now, after a multi-million-dollar operation to drill down a rescue shaft, they are being brought out of in a specially-designed narrow steel cage dubbed Phoenix to symbolize their rebirth.
The operation, which sees each miner equipped with oxygen and communications gear as well as dark glasses to shield their vulnerable eyes, was not expected to be complete before Thursday.
Each miner stepping out of the cage was being greeted by up to three family members and waiting doctors before being flown to a regional hospital for days of check-ups.
Chilean officials have worked feverishly to sustain the nation\’s heroes during their long wait for rescue — which was initially feared would not be before Christmas.
Food, water and means of entertainment were dropped down to them through probe holes to help them survive the prolonged captivity in hot, dank conditions that they described as "hell."
Many of the men suffered skin conditions due to the humidity, while others have chest infections and blood pressure problems.
But the miners, who dubbed themselves "the 33," have formed a closely-knit group. They were said to have squabbled over who should be the last to leave, with many wanting to see their comrades winched to safety ahead of them.
As the miners finally make it to the surface, they leave behind dark isolation for a blaze of publicity normally reserved for movie stars or sporting heroes.
Chilean media reports suggest the men are anticipating lucrative book and film deals that may limit what they end up saying to the waiting news media.