SAN JOSE MINE, Chile — 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 Wednesday night — 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-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. "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 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; 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 men were safely above ground in 22 hours, 37 minutes.
The rescue workers who talked the men through the final hours were the last to be hoisted to the surface.
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.
The miners made the smooth ascent inside a capsule called Phoenix — 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 strap himself in, make the journey upward and emerge into the blinding sun.
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.
As they neared the surface, a camera attached to the top of the capsule showed a brilliant white piercing the darkness.
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 soccer ball on his foot and knee.
"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 later in the day.
Health Minister Jaime Manalich said some of the miners probably will 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.
"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 2,041-foot escape shaft as officials expected, allowing for faster trips.
Estimates for the rescue operation have soared beyond $22 million, though the government has repeatedly insisted that money is not a concern.
As trying as their time underground was, the miners now face challenges so bewildering that no amount of coaching can fully prepare them. 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.