| Updated at: 2136 PST, Thursday, October 14, 2010|
SAN JOSE: Chile completed its flawless rescue of 33 miners trapped for a record 10 weeks, sparking euphoria at home after a 22-hour drama that captivated hundreds of millions around the globe.
The ascent late Wednesday of the last of the miners, grizzled shift leader Luis Urzua, capped an against-all-odds operation of high technology and true grit, and hailed by Chile's president as an inspiration to the world.
It also spelled the end of a nightmare lived by the men, who had survived more than two months 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.
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 elation. Car horns honked in cities and vuvezela horns blared.
Thirty-three balloons decked out in Chile's red-white-and-blue colors floated free into the night sky above the mine at the exact moment the last of the trapped miners was hoisted 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 what has quickly been dubbed the "miracle in the mine."
"It's a new life about to begin," said Belgica Ramirez, the sister-in-law of Mario Gomez, the oldest of the miners saved.
"It's the end of a nightmare," said Silvia Segovia, sister of miner Victor Segovia.
She added that she hoped her rescued brother "never returns" to the mining profession, although he has told relatives that the job was in his blood.
"He told me, 'I am a miner, and I will die a miner.'"
Pinera hailed Urzua for doing his duty and seeing off all his men before "leaving last like a ship's captain," saying the operation had been "inspiring... for the whole world."
The pair led an emotional rendition of Chile's national anthem that was echoed across the country.
The spectacular rescue was followed by an estimated one billion people worldwide, many of them catching live updates on television or the Internet.
Presidents Barack Obama of the United States, Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, as well as Pope Benedict XVI and other dignitaries, sent their congratulations during the day.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon hailed the "extraordinary triumph of human ingenuity and the strength of the human spirit."
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 to prepare the miners for their 15-minute ascent returned to the surface.
After initially being given up for dead in the days following the August 5 mine collapse by all except their families, their discovery alive 17 days later stunned the world, sparking riotous celebration -- as well as 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 until then survived in a shelter with meager rations.
One of the drills completed its shaft last weekend, setting the scene for Wednesday's unprecedented extraction.
First out was Florencio Avalos, a fit and calm 31-year-old 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. "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.
The group 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 nearby boisterous celebrations in the central plaza continued through the night hours after the rescuers returned to the surface.
Health Minister Jaime Manalich said the healthiest could be discharged Thursday.
Doctors at Copiapo hospital said the 16 miners there were generally doing well, though both Sepulveda and another miner were suffering from silicosis, an incurable common miners' ailment in which lungs damaged from dust make breathing difficult.
Manalich also said one miner was receiving "intensive antibiotic treatment" for severe pneumonia and two would need surgery for "very serious" dental infections.