COPIAPO, Chile - The first several of Chile's 33 trapped miners were hoisted to safety in a capsule barely wider than a man's shoulders Wednesday, cheering, punching the air and hugging their families after two months deep underground.
"This is a miracle from God," said Alberto Avalos, the first rescued miner's elated uncle, who rushed to the rescue capsule as it arrived on the surface.
As dawn broke over the gold and copper mine in Chile's northern Atacama desert, eight men had been liberated from the abyss in a methodical rescue operation in which the first miner was brought to the surface shortly after midnight.
Rescuers, relatives and friends broke into jubilant cheers as the miners, one by one, emerged from the mine. Florencio Avalos, a father of two, was the first to emerge to breathe his first fresh air in 69 days after a claustrophobic ascent of around 2,050 feet through rock.
Hugged and kissed by relatives, the 31-year-old Avalos looked very healthy following a nearly 16-minute journey to safety. He was then embraced by President Sebastian Pinera as the surrounding crowd chanted "Chile! Viva Chile!"
Next up was fellow miner Mario Sepulveda, whose whoops of joy resounded on the surface even before he arrived to the laughs of waiting relatives. He stepped out of the capsule with a yellow bag, reached in and pulled out souvenir rocks from below, and slapped one in Pinera's hand.
"I'm so happy!" Sepulveda yelled, grinning, punching his fist in the air and hugging everyone in sight. However, he also sounded a darkly serious note.
GOD AND THE DEVIL
"I have been with God and I've been with the devil," he later said in an interview, calling for deep change to protect workers rights.
Then came Juan Illanes, who called the trip to the surface a "cruise." Each of the men wore dark glasses to protect their eyes after spending so long in the dimly lit tunnel below.
Like wives on the surface who had their hair and nails done for the occasion, the men looked groomed and clean-shaven.
The miners have spent a record 69 days in the hot, humid bowels of the gold and copper mine in Chile's northern Atacama desert since it caved in on Aug. 5. Rescuers expect to bring all the remaining men to safety over the next two days.
For the first 17 days of their ordeal, the miners were all believed to be dead. Their story of survival and the extraordinary rescue operation have captured the world's attention.
After weeks of drilling a narrow shaft down to the miners and preparing the special capsules, the final stage began when a rescuer descended the shaft Tuesday night. He was hugged by the waiting miners when he reached their tunnel deep in the mine, and he then took just minutes to buckle Avalos into the capsule and send him to the surface.
The men, who set a new record for the length of time workers have survived underground after a mining accident, have been exercising to keep their weight down for their ascent.
Nervous wives, children, parents and friends waited on an arid, rocky hillside above the San Jose mine waiting for the men to be evacuated.
The specially made steel cages are equipped with oxygen masks and escape hatches in case they get stuck.
Rescuers were finally able to deploy the capsule, dubbed "Phoenix" after the mythical bird that rose from the ashes, after reinforcing part of the narrow escape shaft with metal casing to prevent rocks from falling and blocking the exit.
Engineers said the final stage of the rescue still has its risks but that the capsule was handling well in the shaft, and they expected a smooth extraction.
Each man's journey to safety should take about 15 minutes. The capsule travels at about 3 feet per second, or a casual walking pace, and can speed to 10 feet per second if the miner being carried gets into trouble.
The miners can communicate with rescue teams using an intercom in the capsule. They will then be under observation at a nearby hospital for two days.
Rescuers originally found the men, miraculously all alive, 17 days after the mine's collapse with a bore hole the width of grapefruit. It then served as an umbilical cord used to pass hydration gels, water and food, as well as letters from their families and soccer videos to keep their spirits up.
Medics say some of the men are psychologically fragile and may struggle with stress for a long time after their rescue.
Pinera ordered an overhaul of Chile's mine safety regulations after the accident. (Additional reporting by Antonio de la Jara, Fabian Cambero, Brad Haynes and Hugh Bronstein in Santiago and Juana Casas in Copiapo; Writing by Simon Gardner; Editing by Kieran Murray and Will Dunham)
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