One by one, the miners trapped for 69 days in a dungeon that could have been their tomb climbed into a rescue capsule and made a smooth ascent to the surface on Wednesday, greeted by the embraces of loved ones, cheered by joyous Chileans and watched by a captivated world.
The anxiety that had accompanied the careful final days of preparation broke at 12:11 am, when the stoutest of the men, Florencio Avalos, emerged from the missile-like chamber and smiled broadly after his half-mile journey to fresh air. By midday, 15 men had been pulled from the mine in roughly 12 hours, including the oldest and youngest among the trapped. The effort was methodical and free of any significant problems, and on track to finish before sunrise Thursday.
Amid an explosion of cheers, Avalos hugged his sobbing 7-year-old son and wife and then President Sebastian Pinera, who has been deeply involved in an effort that had become a matter of national pride.
Avalos was followed an hour later by the most ebullient of the group, Mario Sepulveda, whose shouts were heard even before the capsule peeked above the surface. He hugged his wife, handed out souvenir rocks from the mine to laughing rescuers, bounded out and thrust a fist upward like a prizefighter.
"I think I had extraordinary luck. I was with God and with the devil. And I reached out for God," Sepulveda said as he awaited the air force helicopter ride to a nearby hospital where all the miners were to spend 48 hours under medical observation. No one in recorded history has survived as long trapped underground as the 33 men. For the first 17 days after 700,000 tons of rock collapsed around them Aug. 5, no one even knew whether they were alive. In the weeks that followed, the world was transfixed by their endurance and unity.
As it traveled down and up, down and up, the capsule was not rotating as much inside the 2,041-foot escape shaft as officials expected, allowing for faster trips, Health Minister Jaime Manalich said. The rescues came as quickly as 36 minutes apart. Manalich told a news conference after eight miners were rescued that all of them were in good health, and none has required any special medication, not even the diabetic among them. Chile exploded in joy and relief at the first, breakthrough rescue just after midnight in the coastal Atacama desert. In the capital, Santiago, a cacophony of car horns sounded. In the nearby regional capital of Copiapo, from which 24 of the miners hail, the mayor canceled school so parents and children could "watch the rescue in the warmth of the home."
All-news channels from North America to Europe and the Middle East carried live coverage. Pope Benedict XVI said in Spanish that he "continues with hope to entrust to God's goodness" the fate of the men. Iran's state English-language Press TV followed events live until President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad touched down in Lebanon on his first state visit there.
The images beamed worldwide were extraordinary: Grainy footage from beneath the earth showed each miner climbing into the 13-foot-tall capsule, then disappearing upward through an opening. Then a camera showed the pod steadily rising through the dark, smooth-walled tunnel.
After the fifth miner made his ascent - 19-year-old Jimmy Sanchez, the youngest and the father of a months-old baby - the rescuers paused to lubricate the spring-loaded wheels that gave the capsule a smooth ride through the shaft, then resumed the rescues. The ninth, Mario Gomez, who at 63 is the oldest miner, dropped to his knees after he emerged, bowed his head in prayer and clutched the Chilean flag. His wife, Lilianette Ramirez, pulled him up from the ground and embraced him.
Gomez is most experienced of the group, first entering a mine shaft to labor at age 12, and suffers from silicosis, a lung disease common to miners. He has been on antibiotics and bronchial inflammation medicine. Manalich said Gomez came up with a special oxygen mask.
The lone foreigner among the miners, Carlos Mamani of Bolivia, was visited at a nearby clinic by Pinera and Bolivian President Evo Morales. The miner could be heard telling the Chilean president how nice it was to breathe fresh air and see the stars. The entire rescue operation was meticulously choreographed, with no expense spared in bringing in topflight drillers and equipment - and boring three separate holes into the copper and gold mine. Mining is Chile's lifeblood, providing 40 percent of state earnings, and Pinera put his mining minister and the operations chief of state-owned Codelco, the country's biggest company, in charge of the rescue.
It went so well that its managers abandoned what a legion of journalists had deemed an ultraconservative plan for restricting images of the rescue. A huge Chilean flag that was to obscure the hole from view was moved aside so the hundreds of cameras perched on a hill above could record images that state TV also fed live. That included the surreal moment when the capsule dropped for the first time into the chamber, where the bare-chested miners, most stripped down to shorts because of the subterranean swelter, mobbed the rescuer who emerged to serve as their guide to freedom. "This rescue operation has been so marvelous, so clean, so emotional that there was no reason not to allow the eyes of the world - which have been watching this operation so closely - to see it," a beaming Pinera told a news conference after Avalos was brought to the surface.
Avalos, the 31-year-old second-in-command of the miners, was chosen to be first out because he was in the best condition. When the capsule came out of the manhole-sized opening, Avalos stepped out as bystanders cheered, clapped and broke into a chant of the country's name - "Chi! Chi! Chi! Le! Le! Le!"
The next three men out, including Mamani of Bolivia, followed because they were deemed the fittest of body and mind. The 10 to follow included miners with health problems such as hypertension, diabetes and skin ulcers.
The operation started just before midnight, when a Codelco rescuer made the sign of the cross and was lowered to the trapped men. A navy paramedic went down after Avalos came up - a surprise improvisation as officials had said the two would go down to oversee the miners' ascent before the first went up.
The last miner was slated to be shift foreman Luis Urzua, whose leadership was credited with helping the men endure the first two and a half weeks without outside contact. The men made 48 hours' worth of rations last before rescuers reached them with a narrow bore hole to send down more food.
Janette Marin, sister-in-law of miner Dario Segovia, said the order of rescue didn't matter.
"This won't be a success unless they all get out," she said. Chilean officials played down the risks of the rescue. Panic attacks during the ascent, they said, were the biggest concern. The miners were not sedated - they needed to be alert in case something went awry. Manalich said rescuers could accelerate the capsule to its maximum speed of 3 meters per second if necessary.