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First 3 Chilean miners head home from hospital

The first three Chile miners are released from the hospital late Thursday,  heralding the inevitable breakup of the 33 men who forged a unique bond.
/ Source: news services

The first three miners left the hospital late Thursday night as all now known as "los 33" began their unfamiliar new lives as national heroes.

Chilean TV showed miner Edison Pena, plucked 12th from the cavern where they were trapped for more than two months a half mile underground, getting out of the hospital in Copiapo first.

All three miners, still wearing their shades, piled into an SUV bound for home, smiling and waving.

"I didn't think I'd make it back, so this reception really blows my mind," said Pena, 34, as waiting neighbors showered him with confetti whe he arrived home. Triathlete Pena ran 6 miles a day down in the mine tunnel in the days after the collapse to cope with the stress.

"We really had a bad time," he added, before ducking into his home and closing the front door.

The other two released Thursday were Juan Illanes and Carlos Mamani, NBC News said.

"This is really incredible. It hasn't sunk in," said Illanes, 52, amid roaring cheers.

He said being trapped after the cave-in had taken him "to the limit."

All the miners got tastes of what awaits: swarms of reporters, TV producers, publicity agents and even soccer teams all desperate for a piece of their story.

The men posed in hospital bathrobes for a group photo with President Sebastian Pinera.

Unity helped the men for 69 days underground, including more than two weeks when no one knew whether they were alive.

But the moment they walk out the hospital doors, they'll go beyond the reach of a government operation that has cared for, fed and protected them in a carefully coordinated campaign to ensure each of them would leave in top condition.

"Now they're going to have to find their equilibrium and take care of themselves," the hospital chaplain, the Rev. Luis Lopez, told The Associated Press.

They got quite the preview Thursday of what lies ahead. On their first full day of fresh air, the miners were probably the 33 most in-demand people on the planet.

A Greek mining company wants to bring them to the sunny Aegean islands, competing with rainy Chiloe in the country's southern archipelago, whose tourism bureau wants them to stay for a week.

Soccer teams in Madrid, Manchester and Buenos Aires want them in their stadiums. Bolivia's president wants them at his palace. TV host Don Francisco wants them all on his popular "Sabado Gigante" show in Miami.

Hearing that miner Edison Pena jogged regularly in the tunnels below the collapsed rock, the New York City marathon invited him to participate in next month's race.

What about a reality show? Some other kind of TV work? Why not, said television writer-producer and Oscar nominee Lionel Chetwynd, who said he expected projects were being pitched around Hollywood within hours of the rescue.

"Television is a quick-response medium," he said, joking: "In fact, I think I'll call my agent when we get off the phone."

Doctors said the other miners would get out of the hopital Friday and over the weekend.

Their families and friends were organizing welcome-home dinners, street celebrations and even weddings. Lilianett Ramirez, whose husband Mario Gomez promised her a church wedding in the "Dear Lila" letter Pinera read on TV when the men were found alive, said they have now set a date: "If God and the Virgin desire it, we'll get married on Nov. 7, his birthday," she said, beaming as she left the hospital.

The government promised six months of psychological treatment, made sure each has a bank account only he can operate, and coached them on dealing with rude questions.

The rescue team even asked Guinness World Records to honor all 33 with the record for longest time trapped underground, rather than the last miner out, Luis Urzua. Guinness spokeswoman Jamie Panas said the organization was studying the question.

The men certainly have an extraordinary story to tell. No one before them had been trapped so long and survived.

Pinera also was defining face of the rescue, embracing Luis Urzua when he climbed out of the pod to become the 33rd miner out, then leading a joyous crowd in the national anthem.

"They have experienced a new life, a rebirth," he said, and so has Chile: "We aren't the same that we were before the collapse on Aug. 5. Today Chile is a country much more unified, stronger and much more respected and loved in the entire world."

The billionaire businessman-turned-politician also promised "radical" changes and tougher safety laws to improve how businesses treat their workers.

"Never again in our country will we permit people to work in conditions so unsafe and inhuman as they worked in the San Jose mine, and in many other places in our country," said Pinera, who took office in March as Chile's first elected right-wing president in a half-century.

Among the most compelling stories from the ordeal will be Urzua's. He was the shift foreman when 700,000 tons of rock sealed them in. It was his strict rationing of the 48-hour food supply that helped them stay alive until help came.

Early reports on their food supply were based on memories and partial information from down below. Based on new details the miners shared Thursday with their families, the rationing appears to have been even more extreme than previously thought.

"He told me they only had 10 cans of tuna to share, and water, but it isn't true the thing about milk, because it was bad, out of date," Alberto Sepulveda said after visiting his brother Dario.

Other family members were told the tuna amounted to about half a capful from the top of a soda bottle — and that the only water they could drink tasted of oil.

"I think he was a fundamental pillar that enabled them to keep discipline," said Manuel Gonzalez, the first rescuer down and the last to leave.

"The guys that were down there, I think they never lost their hope," he added. "There were critical moments, but at the end they never lost their hope because they had very positive leaders who kept the group unified."

"We don't see any problems of a psychological or a medical nature," said Dr. Jorge Montes, deputy director of the Copiapo Regional Hospital.

"We were completely surprised," added Health Minister Jaime Manalich. "Any effort we could have made doesn't explain the health condition these people have today."

The miners told relatives Thursday that their rescue ride was as smooth as a skyscraper elevator. The rescue was planned with extreme care, with plans to monitor the miners by video on the way up for signs of panic, provide them with oxygen masks and dark glasses to protect their eyes, and sweaters for the jarring transition from subterranean swelter to chilly desert air.

At the last minute, rescuers abandoned the in-capsule camera and fiber-optic cable it required as unnecessary complexity. The men said they would be fine, and just wanted out, said Fabricio Morales, technician with Micomo, the telecommunications division of Codelco.

The cause of the Aug. 5 collapse at the San Jose Mine awaits a formal investigation, but the miners' families said they knew it was overexploited and increasingly dangerous, and went in anyway for the slightly higher wages, about $1,600 a month.

Descending for 4 miles (7 kilometers) below the Atacama desert, the mine has been giving up copper and gold since 1885, leaving it honeycombed and unstable.

The miners said it felt like an earthquake when the shaft finally collapsed above them, filling the lower reaches of the mine with suffocating dust. It took hours before they could even begin to see.

Why any of them would go back underground may be hard for outsiders to understand. But most of these men have done it all their lives, and so have their relatives in Copiapo, a gritty, blue-collar city where street vendors hawk Chilean flags bearing the faces of "Los 33."

Dario Sepulveda's family wants him to stop working the mines, but they haven't discussed it yet.

"We're giving him time for all that," Alberto Sepulveda said.