| Updated at: 0600 PST, Thursday, October 14, 2010|
SAN JOSE MINE: The last of 33 miners trapped underground in Chile for 10 long weeks rose Wednesday to taste freedom and enjoy the sweet embrace of loved ones in an emotional finale to a clockwork rescue that kept the world spellbound.
Luis Urzua, the grizzled leader of the miners, stepped out of a rescue capsule dubbed the Phoenix and into the embrace of cheering wellwishers, including Chile's President Sebastian Pinera, as a horn blasted the end of a 70-day ordeal.
As the world watched, the miner and his rescuers belted out the Chilean national anthem, basking in pride over a life-saving operation that combined ingenuity and tenacity.
"I congratulate you because you did your duty, leaving last like a ship's captain," Pinera told Urzua, who was greeted by his son.
But six rescuers remained in the mine -- one will eventually be alone -- and must follow Urzua out. Even though their fate was still not secure, they selflessly rejoiced as the final miner emerged to scenes of utter jubilation.
There had been greater anxiety at the start of the rescue operation some 22 hours earlier, when horn blasts and flashing lights, had greeted the safe arrival of Florencio Avalos, the first out.
The miners stepping out of the capsule after a 15-minute ascent up a 622-meter (2,041-foot) escape shaft pumped their fists towards the sky they had not seen for 69 days, or dropped to their knees in prayer.
Their salvation triggered a global, shared sense that human ingenuity, this time, had cheated death and that hope had triumphed, amazingly, over fear and disaster.
"I have changed, I am a different man," said Mario Gomez, the ninth to be rescued and, at 63, the oldest of the group.
"I have been with God and with the devil," said the second miner to be saved, Mario Sepulveda, 40. "I seized the hand of God, it was the best hand. I always knew God would get us out of there."
As night stole across the San Jose gold and copper mine where the dramatic event was unfolding, 31 miners had been brought to the surface, and two were left waiting their turn -- well ahead of schedule.
"We hope to successfully complete this process by the end of the day," Mining Minister Laurence Golborne told reporters at the mine. "We moved very rapidly, faster than originally planned."
The inspirational operation mesmerized Chile and audiences worldwide, with an estimated billion people glued to television screens and 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.
The US space agency NASA, which provided advice on how to sustain the miners during their long wait underground, hailed "the courageous miners" and their rescuers.
First out of the mine was 31-year-old Avalos, who exuded calm as he hugged his young son and wife and thanked Pinera and other officials.
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 by his longtime girlfriend, Susana Valenzuela -- and not his wife, whom he had also invited.
"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 were pale and 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, where two floors were reserved for them.
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, although both Sepulveda and Gomez suffered the common miners' ailment silicosis -- an incurable disease in which inhaled dust damages the lungs and makes 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.