, SAN JOSE MINE, Oct 14 – A complex, against-all-odds rescue of 33 miners trapped in Chile for more than two months transfixed this nation and the world on Wednesday, with wild celebrations breaking out at its successful completion.
The ascent of the last of the miners, grizzled leader Luis Urzua, capped nearly 22 hours of euphoric scenes happening every 30 minutes or so, when each of the trapped men was winched individually to the surface through a narrow escape shaft.
It also spelled the end of a record ordeal lived by the men, who had survived 10 nightmarish weeks in a dank and dark tunnel 622 meters (2,041 feet) below the surface of Chile\’s northern Atacama desert following an August 5 cave-in.
"They were experiencing a kind of rebirth," President Sebastian Pinera said in a televised address to the nation from the San Jose gold and copper mine after all the miners were freed.
The rescue operation, he affirmed, was "inspiring… for the whole world."
Pinera hailed Urzua for doing his duty and seeing off all his men before "leaving last like a ship\’s captain."
The two men, grateful miner and smiling president, led a rendition of Chile\’s national anthem that was echoed across the country.
Everywhere from the mine to the capital Santiago, tears glistened in eyes and on cheeks as the South American nation joined together in an unsurpassed moment of deep joy. Car horns honked in cities and vuvezela horns blared.
Thirty-three balloons decked out in Chile\’s red-white-and-blue colours floated free into the night sky above the mine at the exact moment the last of the 33 trapped miners was brought to the surface.
The depth of feeling electrified the thousands of international journalists covering the rescue, who respectfully stood in silence alongside the miners\’ families, recording the event, and sharing in it.
Relatives later streamed up a hill where 33 Chilean flags had been planted to give thanks for the "miracle" they had witnessed.
"It\’s the end of a nightmare," said Silvia Segovia, sister of one of the miners, Victor Segovia.
"It\’s a new life about to begin," said Belgica Ramirez, the sister-in-law of Mario Gomez, the oldest of the miners saved.
The spectacular rescue was followed by an estimated one billion people around the world, many of them catching live updates on television or the Internet.
Presidents Barack Obama of the United States, Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, as well as Pope Benedict XVI and other dignitaries sent their congratulations during the day.
The US space agency NASA, which provided advice on how to sustain the 33 men underground, hailed "the courageous miners" and their rescuers.
The operation officially wrapped up at 12:35 am (0335 GMT) Thursday, when the last of six highly trained rescue specialists who had been sent into the mine Wednesday to prepare the miners for their 15-minute ascent himself returned to the surface.
The miners\’ ordeal attracted global attention in their determined triumph over fear and disaster.
After initially being given up for dead in the days following the August 5 mine collapse by all except their families, their discovery alive on August 22 sparked riotous celebration — and also head scratching on how to get them out.
While plans were made for three drills to bore escape shafts to them, sustenance and communications were dropped through probe holes to the men, who had up to then survived in a shelter with meagre rations.
Two of the drills veered off course, but the third completed its shaft last weekend, setting the scene for Wednesday\’s unprecedented extraction of the men.
The first out was 31-year-old Florencio Avalos, a fit and calm man who hugged his young son and wife and thanked Pinera and other officials.
Then, like a cannonball of energy out of the shaft, came Mario Sepulveda, 40, who roared "Viva Chile" before handing out rocks from the bottom of the mine as souvenirs.
"I have been with God and with the devil," Sepulveda said later, in more reflective mood. "I seized the hand of God, it was the best hand. I always knew God would get us out of there."
Others following included the only non-Chilean in the group, Bolivian miner Carlos Mamani, 23, who turned down an offer from visiting Bolivian President Evo Morales to return to La Paz with him, preferring to remain in Chile.
Also brought to the top was Jimmy Sanchez, at 19 the youngest of the miners, Esteban Rojas, a 44-year-old who had promised a church wedding to his long-term partner Jessica Yanez, and Raul Bustos, 40, who had been working at the mine only two months when it collapsed.
Yonni Barrios, the 21st miner to be hauled to the surface, stepped out of the escape capsule to be hugged not by his wife of 28 years, but by his long-time girlfriend.
"It turned out he had also asked the other lady and I have decency. One thing is clear: it\’s her or me," the wife, Marta Salinas, was quoted as telling Chilean media.
She nevertheless said: "I\’m glad he\’s safe, it\’s a miracle from God."
All the men wore special dark sunglasses to protect their weakened eyes from the natural light.
They were immediately taken to a field hospital at the mine for tests, and around half were flown to a regional hospital in the nearest town of Copiapo.
Health Minister Jaime Manalich said the healthiest could be discharged Thursday.
Doctors at Copiapo hospital said the 16 miners at the hospital were generally doing well, though both Sepulveda and one other miner suffered from silicosis, an incurable, common miners\’ ailment in which lungs damaged from dust make breathing difficult.
Manalich also said one unnamed miner was receiving "intensive antibiotic treatment" for severe pneumonia and two would have to have surgery under general anesthesia for "very serious" dental infections.