Copiapo: All of Chile`s 33 trapped miners were rescued from deep underground in a special capsule on Wednesday as an extraordinary two-month survival story many call a miracle triggered wild celebrations.
Luis Urzua, 54, who was the shift leader at the time of the collapse, was the last of the miners to travel through 2,050 feet of rock to the surface in a capsule barely wider than a man`s shoulders.
Celebrations erupted across the country as he emerged to a hero`s welcome above the San Jose gold and copper mine in Chile`s northern Atacama desert, wearing his hard-hat and dark shades to protect his eyes after spending 69 days in a dimly lit tunnel.
"Viva Chile!" the crowd chanted, as Urzua emerged from the capsule, the light on his miners` hat still on.
Rescuers held up a sign in Spanish reading: "Mission Accomplished."
Urzua beamed as an elated crowd chanted, sobbed and waved red, white and blue Chilean flags. The miners set a world record for survival trapped underground.
"I hand the shift over to you and hope this never happens again," he said with a Chilean flag draped around his shoulders, hugging an emotional President Sebastian Pinera. "I am proud to be Chilean."
Rescue workers opened the capsule door and hugged Urzua, who had insisted throughout that he would not leave the tunnel until all the other miners were safely evacuated.
They are all now safe thanks to a meticulously planned rescue operation that went quicker and more smoothly than anyone dared to believe.
The rescue workers who traveled down the shaft to help evacuate them will now themselves be hoisted to the surface in the metal capsule, named Phoenix after the mythical bird that rose from the ashes.
Church bells rang out in Chile when the first miner was extricated and Chileans were glued to their televisions, proud of their nation`s ability to save the men in a world-class rescue operation.
"This was the toughest match of my life," said Franklin Lobos, a former professional soccer player who turned to mining and driving a taxi to make ends meet, as he emerged from the mine.
The miners were whisked away for medical check-ups and found to be in good health, except for one who has pneumonia and is being treated with antibiotics.
"This is a miracle from God," said Alberto Avalos, the uncle of Florencio Avalos, a father of two who was the first to emerge shortly after midnight.
Euphoric rescuers, relatives and friends broke into cheers -- and tears -- as the miners emerged to breathe fresh air for the first time since the mine caved in on August 5.
They were all initially believed to be dead but rescue teams found the men 17 days after the collapse with a bore hole the width of a grapefruit. The tiny hole then became an umbilical cord used to pass hydration gels, water and food to keep them alive during one of the world`s most ambitious rescue operations.
Their story of survival captured global attention. Some 1,500 journalists were at the mine to report on the rescue operation, which was broadcast live around the world, including dramatic live images of the miners hugging rescuers who traveled down the shaft to their refuge deep in the mine.
The flawless rescue was a big success for Pinera, who waited at the mouth of the shaft through the night and day to greet and hug the men as they emerged from the red, white and blue capsule -- the Chilean colors.
Pinera, a billionaire entrepreneur who took office in March, ordered an overhaul of Chile`s mine safety regulations after the accident. His popularity ratings have surged and his government has won praise for its handling of the crisis.
Among millions of people who watched television coverage of the rescue of the first miner was US President Barack Obama, who hailed the operation as an inspiration to the world.
"This rescue is a tribute not only to the determination of the rescue workers and the Chilean government but also the unity and resolve of the Chilean people who have inspired the world," Obama said in Washington.
Thirty-two of the miners are Chilean but one is from neighbouring Bolivia and the rescue helped improve ties between the two countries, locked in a bitter dispute for more than a century over Bolivia`s demands for access to the Pacific.
Bolivia`s President, Evo Morales, was at the mine to welcome Bolivian miner Carlos Mamani as he was lifted to safety and he thanked Pinera and his government for rescuing him.
Chile will continue to shut old, decrepit mines after the miners` saga, but the clampdown is unlikely to hit output in the world`s top copper producer, industry insiders say.
The mining industry has played a central and often tragic role in Latin American history, starting with the hunger for gold and silver that drove the Spanish conquest and led to the enslavement of indigenous peoples.
For centuries, conditions in Latin American mines were miserable but they have improved dramatically in recent decades and the industry has over the past 10 years helped fuel a boom in some of the region`s economies, including Chile.