In a flawless operation that unfolded before a transfixed world, the men, who had been trapped for more than 69 days, were raised one by one in a metal capsule that was winched up a narrow shaft of rock.
All six rescue workers who went down to bring out the 33 trapped miners in Chile have returned to the surface, leaving behind an empty, wrecked mine.
Manuel Gonzalez, a mine rescue expert with Chile’s state-owned Codelco copper company, who was the first rescuer to reach the miners late on Tuesday night local time, was the last rescuer to return to the surface at 12.32 am Thursday local time.
He waited alone 700m underground for 26 minutes while the escape capsule went up and came back down for him. He talked by phone with other rescuers at the top while waiting, joking that he was praying the capsule showed up.
A video feed showed him gesture triumphantly, then bow before making an awkward climb into the capsule, drawing cries of “Careful! Careful!” from those at the surface. Then he strapped himself in and shut the door before disappearing up the shaft.
Not even a full 24 hours after the rescue began, 54-year-old Luis Alberto Urzua Irribarren, the 33rd miner, made his ascent emerged from a manhole-sized opening in the ground.
Jubilation erupted as he took his first breath of fresh air for 10 weeks and joked with waiting rescuers that he had just finished a “long shift.” Stepping out of Phoenix 2, the metal capsule that brought the miners to the surface one by one, he was embraced by Chilean President Sebastian Pinera.
Mr Urzua, who was the miners’ shift foreman, had volunteered to be the last man up. Like the captain of a ship he refused to leave until he knew all his men were safe.
Known to other miners as “Don Lucho,” he has been described as a born leader and is credited with having kept his men going in their darkest hours, and successfully rationing what little food they had. Mr Urzua said: “It was hard, that was a shift of 70 days. We have done an excellent job, we have done what the entire world was waiting for.
“The first several days, I can’t even explain it, but we had strength, we had spirit, we wanted to fight. We wanted to fight for our families, that was the greatest thing. Those 70 days we fought so hard were not in vain.” He said the toughest moment was right after the collapse on Aug 5 in which 700 tons of rock buried the men alive.
Mr Urzua described how, as the dust cleared, he saw the fallen rock. “I thought I was in a movie,” he said. Mr Pinera produced for him the note the miners had attached to a drill probe 17 days after the cave-in, which let the world know they were there.
“We didn’t know until this note whether you were dead or alive,” said Mr Pinera. “We cried. In all the homes of Chile we cried.” Mr Pinera told Mr Urzua he had been a “good captain” and the two men led rescuers in a rendition of Chile’s national anthem, holding their hard hats over their hearts.
In a spirit of unity many of the other miners’ relatives had not gone to the hospital in nearby Copiapo, staying until Mr Urzua emerged.
They gathered in front a huge screen at Camp Hope, the ramshackle settlement that has formed near the mine, to watch a live feed. Tired but happy faces gazes up at the pictures and round after round of “Viva Chile!” rang out.
Darwin Cortez, brother of Pedro Cortez, the 31st miner up, sprayed champagne across the crowd. He said: “Thank god, thank god. They are all safe. It’s a miracle!”
One by one throughout the day, the miners had emerged to the cheers of exuberant Chileans. The operation had picked up speed as the day went on, but each miner was greeted with the same boisterous applause.
It had begun at midnight on Tuesday when the first miner Florencio Avalos, 31, was successfully brought to the surface. He was followed by the ebullient Mario Sepulveda, 40, who leaped in the air and hugged everyone in sight.
As the rescue progressed far more quickly than expected the rest of the miners were brought up as swiftly as one every 25 minutes.
They 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.
The miners emerged looking healthier than many had feared. After they were all out rescuers who had gone down to help with the extraction were also safely lifted back to the top.
In the town of Copiapo, where many of the miners are from, thousands of people had erupted into cheers as Mr Urzua emerged and church bells rang out.
There was a deafening cacophony of car horns and people waved Chilean flags and jumped up and down, many wearing huge hats in the national colours.