Copiapo: The first three miners left hospital as they and their 30 comrades began adjusting to new lives in the media glare after 69 days trapped in a Chilean gold and copper mine.
The trio departed under high security in a government vehicle that was chased by a mob of photographers after hospital officials determined they were well enough to go home.
All 33 were admitted to hospital for treatment after their ordeal ended in a flawless rescue that inspired pride throughout Chile in an emotional saga that captivated the world`s attention following a partial mine collapse in August.
"Our plan worked, that`s why we`re so satisfied," Mining Minister Laurence Golborne, the public face of the unprecedented rescue effort since its launch back in August, told reporters at the San Jose mine.
Hospital deputy director Jorge Montes said all 33 have undergone thorough medical exams, and those determined to have the fewest health problems were to be allowed to check out.
Another three of the miners had surgery under general anesthetic for serious dental problems, while one was being treated for pneumonia. Two were diagnosed with the lung disease silicosis that is common among miners.
Montes said most of the men were in surprisingly good health given their 10-week ordeal.
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, who had been at the San Jose Mine over the 22-hour rescue to greet the emerging miners, hailed their "miracle" salvation during a visit to the hospital.
He sparked cheers when he suggested they form a football team under one of their number who used to be a professional player, Frank Lobos, for an October 25 game against rescuers and officials.
"The winners will get La Moneda (the presidential palace), and the losers will have to go back into the mine," Pinera joked.
One of the miners, Richard Villaroel, gave a brief interview to Chilean public broadcaster TVN that gave powerful insights into their harrowing experiences.
"We all supported each other. When one of us found it tough, the comrade at his side helped him," said Villaroel, the day after the 27-year-old mechanic emerged to be greeted by his pregnant wife.
Villaroel said that despite trying conditions in the dark, dank and hot hole where the miners survived for 17 days on fragments of food before being discovered, decisions were reached calmly and democratically.
"If a decision was taken in which one person lost, most would still be winners," he explained. "The food was distributed in small portions, something that would last, the same for water."
He also recalled his anguish when disaster struck on August 5.
"When the second rockfall came that was the scariest moment because the mine was completely blocked. I thought that I would never see my wife again or the birth of my son."
In the hospital, the miners still wore the dark glasses given to them to protect their weakened eyes when they made the claustrophobic, 15-minute journey up from the underground cavern in the narrow Phoenix 2 rescue capsule.
But they also wore fresh clothes, gray T-shirts and hospital trousers, some in blue bathrobes, and were cleanly shaven -- looking much fresher than the drawn-out figures who joyously tasted freedom a day earlier.
The miners now have the challenge of charting out a life forever changed by their ordeal. Suddenly, they are household names in Chile and media stars around the world. They have been flooded with requests for interviews, and can even set their own price.
But Omar Reygadas, the son of one of the miners with the same name, said the men wanted everything to be shared equally.
"The miners have told the authorities they want to set up a foundation. They want it to cover everything (royalties from documentaries, films or books), and to cover all 33," he told a news agency.
Television stations around the globe covered their rescue live, while Facebook and Twitter users swapped stories about the miners and newspapers everywhere made them the front-page story turning them into instant celebrities.
Officials said they would seal up the escape shaft at the mine, which Pinera has placed a symbolic metal cover over, and dismantle the equipment there. Much of it was being tagged for inclusion in a future museum.
The president said the long rescue operation had cost up to 20 million dollars, around a third of which Golborne estimated had been donated by private companies in the form of machinery and expertise.