updated 10/14/2010 12:57:13 AM ET 2010-10-14T04:57:13

The longest underground nightmare in history ended safely — and faster than anyone expected.

In a flawless operation that unfolded before a hopeful, transfixed world, 33 miners who were trapped for more than two months deep beneath the Chilean earth were raised one by one Wednesday through a smooth-walled shaft of rock.

The last man out was the one who held the group together when they were feared lost, a shift foreman named Luis Urzua who enforced tight rations of their limited food and supplies before help could arrive.

"We have done what the entire world was waiting for," he said immediately after his rescue. "We had strength, we had spirit, we wanted to fight, we wanted to fight for our families, and that was the greatest thing."

Not even a full 24 hours after the rescue began, Urzua made the 2,041-foot ascent in a rescue capsule called Phoenix and emerged from a manhole-sized opening in the ground to a joyous celebration of confetti, balloons and champagne.  

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President Sebastian Pinera 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 hardhats held to their hearts, the pair led a joyous crowd in singing the national anthem.

The first rescue worker down was last up — Manuel Gonzalez, a mine rescue expert with Chile's state-owned Codelco copper company, talked the men through the final hours inside the mine. Then, he spent 26 minutes alone down below before he strapped himself into the capsule for the ride up. He reached the surface at 12:32 a.m. Thursday local time to hugs from his comrades and Pinera.

The rescue exceeded expectations every step of the way. Officials first said it might be four months before they could get the men out; it turned out to be 69 days and about 8 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.

The crowd in "Camp Hope," down a hill from the escape shaft, set off confetti, released balloons and sprayed champagne as Urzua's capsule surfaced, joining in a rousing miners' cheer. In the capital of Santiago, hundreds gathered in Plaza Italia, waving flags and chanting victory slogans in the miners' honor.

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 Copiapo resident 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 globe. While the operation picked up speed as the day went on, each miner was greeted with the same boisterous applause from rescuers.

"Welcome to life," Pinera told Victor Segovia, the 15th miner out. On a day of superlatives, it seemed no overstatement.

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 about $1,600 a month.

Story: Nuggets from the Chilean mine

The miners made the smooth ascent inside the Phoenix capsule — 13 feet 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 it worked exactly as planned.

Beginning at midnight Tuesday, and sometimes as quickly as every 25 minutes, the pod was lowered the nearly half-mile to where 700,000 tons of rock collapsed Aug. 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 into blinding light.

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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 and sweaters for the jarring transition from subterranean swelter to chilly desert air.

As they neared the surface, a camera attached to the top of the capsule showed a brilliant white piercing the darkness not unlike what accident survivors describe when they have near-death experiences.

The miners emerged looking healthier than many had expected and even clean-shaven. Several thrust their fists upward like prizefighters, and Mario Sepulveda, the second to taste freedom, bounded out and led his rescuers in a rousing cheer. Franklin Lobos, who played for the Chilean national soccer team in the 1980s, briefly bounced a ball on his foot and knee.

Video: Watch journey from inside rescue capsule

"We have prayed to San Lorenzo, the patron saint of miners, and to many other saints so that my brothers Florencio and Renan would come out of the mine all right. It is as if they had been born again," said Priscila Avalos. One of her brothers was the first miner rescued, and the other came out Wednesday evening.

Health Minister Jaime Manalich said some of the miners probably will be able to leave the hospital Thursday — 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.

"They are not ready to have a moment's rest until the last of their colleagues is out," he said.

As it traveled down and up, down and up, the rescue capsule was not rotating as much inside the escape shaft as officials expected, allowing for faster trips.

The first man out was Florencio Avalos, who emerged from the missile-like chamber and hugged his sobbing 7-year-old son, his wife and the Chilean president.

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, Japan and North Korean state TV were at the mine.

The images beamed to the world were extraordinary: Grainy footage from the mine chamber showed each man climbing into the capsule, then disappearing upward through an opening.

Among the first rescued was the youngest miner, Jimmy Sanchez, at 19 the father of a months-old baby. Two hours later came the oldest, Mario Gomez, 63, who suffers from a lung disease common to miners and had been on antibiotics inside the mine. He dropped to his knees after he emerged, bowed his head in prayer and clutched the Chilean flag.

Gomez's wife, Lilianett Ramirez, pulled him up from the ground and embraced him. The couple had talked by video once a week, and she said that he had repeated the promise he made to her in his initial letter from inside the mine: He would marry her properly in a church wedding, followed by the honeymoon they never had.

The lone foreigner among them, Carlos Mamani of Bolivia, was visited at a nearby clinic by Pinera and Bolivian President Evo Morales. The miner could be heard telling the Chilean leader how nice it was to breathe fresh air and see the stars.

Most of the men emerged clean-shaven. More than 300 people at the mine alone had worked on the rescue or to sustain them 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 $22 million, though the government has repeatedly insisted that money was not a concern.

The men emerged in good health. But at the hospital in Copiapo, where miner after miner walked from the ambulance to a waiting wheelchair, it became clear that psychological issues would be as important to treat as physical ones.

Dr. Guillermo Swett said Sepulveda told him about an internal "fight with the devil" that he had inside the mine. He said Sanchez appeared to be having a hard time adjusting, and seemed depressed.

"He spoke very little and didn't seem to connect," the doctor said.

Story: Miner profiles, first moments of freedom

The entire rescue operation was meticulously choreographed. No expense was spared in bringing in topflight drillers and equipment — and boring three separate holes into the copper and gold mine. Only one was finished — the one through which the miners exited.

Mining is Chile's lifeblood, providing 40 percent of state earnings, and Pinera put his mining minister and the operations chief of Codelco in charge of the rescue.

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It went so well that its managers abandoned a plan to restrict images of the rescue. A huge Chilean flag that was to obscure the hole from view was moved aside so the hundreds of cameras perched on a hill above could capture images that state TV also fed live.

That included the surreal moment when the capsule dropped for the first time into the chamber, where the bare-chested miners, most stripped down to shorts because of the underground heat, mobbed the rescuer who emerged to serve as their guide to freedom.

"This rescue operation has been so marvelous, so clean, so emotional that there was no reason not to allow the eyes of the world — which have been watching this operation so closely — to see it," a beaming Pinera told a news conference after the first miner safely surfaced.

The miners' vital signs were closely monitored throughout the ride. They were given a high-calorie liquid diet donated by NASA, designed to prevent nausea from any rotation of the capsule as it traveled through curves in the 28-inch-diameter escape hole.

Engineers inserted steel piping at the top of the shaft, which was angled 11 degrees off vertical before plunging like a waterfall. Drillers had to curve the shaft to pass through "virgin" rock, narrowly avoiding collapsed areas and underground open spaces in the overexploited mine, which had operated since 1885.

President Barack Obama said the rescue had "inspired the world." The crews included many Americans, including a driller operator from Denver and a team from Center Rock Inc. of Berlin, Pa., that built and managed the piston-driven hammers that pounded the hole through rock laced with quartzite, some of the hardest and most abrasive rock.

Chile has promised that its care of the miners won't end for six months at least — not until they can be sure that each man has readjusted.

Psychiatrists and other experts in surviving extreme situations predict their lives will be anything but normal. Since Aug. 22, when a narrow bore hole broke through to their refuge and the miners stunned the world with a note, scrawled in red ink, disclosing their survival, their families have been exposed in ways they never imagined.

Miners had to describe their physical and mental health in detail with teams of doctors and psychologists. In some cases, when both wives and lovers claimed the same man, everyone involved had to face the consequences.

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As trying as their time underground was, the miners face challenges so bewildering that no amount of coaching can fully prepare them. Rejoining a world intensely curious about their ordeal, they have been invited to presidential palaces, to take all-expenses-paid vacations and to appear on countless TV shows. Book and movie deals are pending, along with job offers.

Sepulveda's performance exiting from the shaft appeared to confirm what many Chileans thought when they saw his engaging performances in videos sent up from below — that he could have a future as a TV personality.

But he tried to quash the idea as he spoke to viewers of Chile's state television channel while sitting with his wife and children shortly after his rescue.

"The only thing I'll ask of you is that you don't treat me as an artist or a journalist, but as a miner," he said. "I was born a miner and I'll die a miner."

The Associated Press, Reuters and NBC News contributed to this report.

Video: Pinera: 'We will never forget'

Photos: Rescue

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  1. Relatives of the 33 Chilean miners celebrate after the rescue of the last miner in Copiapo, Chile, on Wednesday, Oct. 13. The 33 miners had been trapped 700 meters underground since Aug. 5. (Ian Salas / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rescue workers hold a sign reading "Mission Accomplished Chile" after the last of the 33 trapped miners, Luis Urzua, was lifted from the mine in the Fenix 2 capsule Wednesday. (TVN CHILE) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Chileans celebrate after the last miner was rescued in Copiapo, on Wednesday. The extraordinary two-month survival story many called a 'miracle,' triggered wild celebrations. (Mariana Bazo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Chilean trapped miners gather inside the San Jose mine as the rescue operation starts in Copiapo on October 13, 2010, in this handout photo by the Chilean navy. (Armada De Chile / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. The last miner to be rescued, Luis Urzua, who is credited with organizing the miners to ration food and save themselves, celebrates next to Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, at right, at the end of the rescue operation at San Jose mine in Copiapo, Wednesday. (Ho / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Chilean trapped miner Luis Urzua, right, who was shift leader when the San Jose mine collapsed in early August, poses next to a rescuer before the start of the operation to hoist them to safety from the mine in Copiapo on October 13, in this handout photo from the Chilean navy. (Armada De Chile / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. People celebrate the end of the successful rescue operation to free 33 trapped miners from the San Jose mine in Copiapo, Chile, Wednesday. (Martin Mejia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Miner Franklin Lobos, a former professional soccer player, receives a ball as a gift from Chile's President Sebastian Pinera after Lobos became the 27th miner to be rescued from the San Jose mine. (Ho / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Esteban Rojas, 44, kneels in prayer after stepping out from the rescue capsule and becoming the 18th miner to be rescued on Wednesday at the San Jose mine. (Hugo Infante / Chilean Government via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Raul Bustos, the 30th miner to be rescued, is carried away by stretcher. (Handout / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Franklin Lobos greets a relative after being rescued from the San Jose mine. (Handout / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Roxana Gomez, daughter of rescued miner Mario Gomez, cries as she watches the rescue of her father on a TV screen at the relatives camp outside the San Jose mine near Copiapo, Chile, Wednesday. (Natacha Pisarenko / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Miner Alex Vega reacts show off his t-shirt after being rescued from the mine near Copiapo, Chile on Wednesday. (Hugo Infante / Chilean Government via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Relatives of Chilean miner Victor Zamora watch a TV broadcast of his rescue operation taking place at the San Jose mine. (Ian Salas / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. The oldest of the trapped miners, Claudio Mario Gomez, 59, celebrates as he becomes the ninth to exit the rescue capsule on Wednesday, near Copiapo, Chile. (Chilean Government via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Roxana Gomez, center, daughter of miner Mario Gomez, and Maria Segovia, right, sister of trapped miner Dario Segovia, react while watching the rescue operations on TV. (Natacha Pisarenko / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Miner Claudio Yanez applauds as medics carry him away on a stretcher after his rescue from the collapsed San Jose gold and copper mine early Wednesday. (Hugo Infante / Chilean government via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Miner Osman Araya, right, greets his wife, Angelica Ancalipe, early Wednesday, moments after he was rescued from the collapsed mine where he had been trapped with 32 others for more than two months. (Hugo Infante / Chilean government via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. People watching a large screen in a public square in Copiapo celebrate as Mario Sepulveda becomes the second miner to reach the surface. (Mariana Bazo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Miner Mario Sepulveda celebrates after emerging from the rescue capsule. (Hugo Infante / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. People watching television screens in Copiapo celebrate as they watch the first miner to be rescued, Florencio Avalos, emerging safely. (Dario Lopez-mills / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Chilean President Sebastian Pinera embraces rescued miner Florencio Avalos, left, after his rescue. (Jose Manuel De La Maza / Chilean / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. The capsule that is being used to bring the trapped miners to the surface is moved into position at the start of the operation. (David Mercado / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, center, observes as the rescue capsule is lowered into the shaft for its final test. (Hugo Infante / Gov. Of Chile / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Miners greet rescuer Manuel Gonzalez after he arrives at the base of the shaft. (TVN CHILE) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Relatives and friends of the trapped miners celebrate while watching the rescue of Florencio Avalos on a television screen at a camp outside the mine. (Natacha Pisarenko / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. A man clasps his hands together as if in prayer as he watches the rescue operation on a large screen in Copiapo. (Mariana Bazo / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: Relatives of the 33 Chilean miners celebrate after the arrival of Luiz Urzúa, the last miner of the group,
    Ian Salas / EPA
    Above: Slideshow (27) Rescue brings joy to families and nation - Rescue
  2. Image: Relatives of trapped miner
    Natacha Pisarenko / AP
    Slideshow (40) Rescue brings joy to families and nation - Cave in
  3. Image: Relatives of trapped miner
    Natacha Pisarenko / AP
    Slideshow (40) Chilean mine collapse

Gallery: Miner profiles, first moments of freedom

Read about each of the 33 miners as they are rescued.

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