San Jose Mine, Chile – Stepping into the glare of arc lights for their first fresh air in 10 weeks, the 33 men in wraparound sunglasses resembled rock stars more than once-desperate rock diggers who cheated death.
One by one, Chile’s newest heroes emerged from a hellish confinement to roars of applause and came face to face with their loved ones, their national leaders and the camera lens of a world intoxicated by their sensational and uplifting story.
When Luis Urzua, the grizzled leader of “the 33” who had been trapped in the bowels of the San Jose mine, finally emerged looking cool and collected, an emotional President Sebastian Pinera signalled a dramatic conclusion their 69-day ordeal.
“I’m taking over your shift, and I congratulate you for fulfilling your duty, for leaving last like a ship’s captain,” Pinera told Urzua, the shift foreman whose leadership was credited with helping the men survive.
“We have done what the entire world was waiting for,” Urzua responded.
Thirty-three balloons in the red, white and blue of Chile’s national flag, floated free into the night sky above the mine at the moment Urzua was brought to the surface.
The shiny globes, scudding across a crescent moon late last night, symbolised the liberation of the men trapped for a record 69 days, and the soaring pride Chileans felt in their nation – a shared moment of unsurpassed joy and union.
Cheeks glistened with tears as the miners’ relatives in Camp Hope, the collection of tents at the entrance to the San Jose mine, watched the balloons rise.
Then the relatives burst into the national anthem, singing along with Urzua, whose shoulders were draped with a Chilean flag, and Pinera.
Later, relatives streamed up a hill overlooking the rescue shaft where 32 Chilean flags and one Bolivian flag – for the only foreigner of the group – had been planted at the start of their vigil back in early August.
There, they paid homage to rescuers and gave thanks for having their loved ones back in their embrace.
In the nearby town of Copiapo, the central plaza was packed with thousands boisterously cheering the successful operation before huge TV screens set up to broadcast the rescue.
“Our 33 children have emerged from our Earth!” cried a tearful Mildred Bravo, joined by family members in the midst of a raucous crowd that rang bells and blew whistles for a cacophonous celebration.
“I went to the World Cup in South Africa. But this is Chile’s real world championship,” Raul Palma, teary-eyed and hoarse from yelling, said.
“I’ve been celebrating for 48 hours without sleep,” he added with a wide smile.
The moments marking the end of a rescue operation that had taken two months to plan, mount and complete capped a day of vivid images shared by a world mesmerised by Chile’s real-life tale of heroism and ingenuity.
From the very first minutes of Wednesday when the first miner Florencio Avalos appeared, to the late-night emergence of Urzua, the day was punctuated every half hour or so by the arrival on the surface of a miner.
Officials in contact with them said they saw the 15-minute ascent to the surface akin to the journey from a dark womb into the light, a significance that was inscribed in the name given to the capsule, the Phoenix.
“They were experiencing a kind of rebirth,” Pinera said in a televised address to the nation immediately after Urzua’s ascent.
When the last miner exited the depths of the mine, I was moved as every Chilean was,” he said, adding he believed the rescue operation was “inspiring... for the whole world.”
Given the divine overtones lent to the rescue by the miners, who had fervently prayed in the dark for a miracle, it was no surprise that they gave very Catholic thanks once they reached the surface.
They fell to their knees to pray, made the sign of a crucifix, showed off shirts emblazoned with the phrase “Thank you, Lord”.
One brought a Bible up with him. Another’s blue helmet bore a scrawled message “God lives”.
But they also expressed gratitude to the human architects of their salvation, the political leaders and engineers who drilled the narrow escape shaft to them and conceived the Phoenix capsule that protected them as it shuttled them to safety.
Mario Sepulveda, the second miner up and nicknamed Super Mario for his infectious energy, galvanised the waiting public when he barrelled out of the rescue shaft like a cannonball.
“Viva Chile!” he roared, before handing out rocks from the bottom of the mine as gifts and leading officials in a chorus of “Chi Chi Chi! Le Le Le! We are the miners of Chile!”