The last of the Chilean miners, the foreman who held them together when they were feared lost, was raised from the depths of the earth today in a joyous ending to a 69-day ordeal that riveted the world.
No-one has ever been trapped so long and survived.
Luis Urzua ascended smoothly through 2,000 feet of rock, completing a 22 and a half-hour rescue operation that unfolded with remarkable speed and flawless execution. Before a jubilant crowd of about 2,000 people, he became the 33rd miner to be rescued.
“We have done what the entire world was waiting for,” he told Chilean president Sebastian Pinera immediately after his rescue from the San Jose mine in the Acatama desert.
“The 70 days that we fought so hard were not in vain. We had strength, we had spirit, we wanted to fight, we wanted to fight for our families, and that was the greatest thing.”
The president told him: “You are not the same and the country is not the same after this. You were an inspiration. Go hug your wife and your daughter.” With Mr Urzua by his side, he led the crowd in singing the national anthem.
The rescue exceeded expectations every step of the way. Officials first said it might be four months before they could get the men out but it turned out to be 69 days and about eight hours.
Once the escape tunnel was finished, they estimated it would take 36 to 48 hours to get all the miners to the surface. That got faster as the operation went along and all the miners were safely above ground in 22 hours, 37 minutes.
Manuel Gonzalez, the first rescue worker to enter the mine, became the last man to leave, today, hoisted to the surface at 12.32am local time (4.32am Irish time) to hugs from his comrades and Mr Pinera. He and five other rescue workers talked the men through the final hours.
The crowd in Camp Hope, down a hill from the escape shaft, set off confetti, released balloons and sprayed champagne as Mr Urzua’s capsule surfaced, joining in a rousing miners’ cheer.
In Chile’s capital Santiago, hundreds gathered in Plaza Italia, waving flags and chanting victory slogans.
In nearby Copiapo, about 3,000 people gathered in the town square, where a huge screen broadcast live footage of the rescue. The exuberant crowd waved Chilean flags of all sizes and blew on red vuvuzelas as cars drove around the plaza honking their horns, their drivers yelling “Long live Chile!”.
“The miners are our heroes,” said teary-eyed Maria Guzman, 45.
One by one throughout the day, the men had emerged to the cheers of exuberant Chileans and before the eyes of a transfixed world. While the operation picked up speed as the day went on, each miner was greeted with the same boisterous applause from rescuers.
They rejoined a world intensely curious about their ordeal, and certain to offer fame and jobs.
Previously unimaginable riches awaited men who had risked their lives going into the unstable gold and copper mine for just over €1,200 a month.
The miners made the smooth ascent inside a capsule called Phoenix – 13ft tall, barely wider than their shoulders and painted in the white, blue and red of the Chilean flag. It had a door that stuck occasionally, and some wheels had to be replaced, but worked exactly as planned.
Beginning early yesterday, and sometimes as quickly as every 25 minutes, the pod was lowered the nearly half-mile to where 700,000 tons of rock collapsed on August 5 and entombed the men.
Then, after a quick pep talk from rescue workers who had descended into the mine, a miner would climb in, make the journey upward and emerge from a manhole.
The rescue was planned with extreme care. The miners were monitored by video on the way up for any sign of panic. They had oxygen masks, dark glasses to protect their eyes from the unfamiliar sunlight and sweaters for the jarring transition from subterranean swelter to chilly desert air.
Health minister Jaime Manalich said some of the miners would probably be able to leave the hospital today – earlier than projected – but many had been unable to sleep, wanted to talk with families and were anxious. One was treated for pneumonia, and two needed dental work.
As it travelled down and up, down and up, the rescue capsule was not rotating as much inside the 2,041ft escape shaft as officials expected, allowing for faster trips.
No-one in recorded history has survived as long trapped underground. For the first 17 days, no one even knew whether they were alive. In the weeks that followed, the world was captivated by their endurance and unity.
News channels from North America to Europe and the Middle East carried live coverage of the rescue. 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 for a time. Crews from Russia and Japan and North Korean state TV were at the mine.
More than 300 people at the mine alone had worked on the rescue or to sustain the men during their long wait by lowering rocket-shaped tubes dubbed “palomas”, Spanish for carrier pigeons. Along with the food and medicine came razors and shaving cream.
Estimates for the rescue operation alone have soared beyond €15m, though the government has repeatedly insisted that money is not a concern.
US president Barack Obama said the rescue had “inspired the world”.