14 Oct 2010

Wild celebration as all trapped miners emerge

10:01 pm on 14 October 2010

Chile is wildly celebrating the successful rescue of 33 miners trapped deep underground for 10 weeks.

Sixty-nine days after being entombed in a collapsed mine shaft, the last of the miners was hauled to the surface on Wednesday night Chile time (Thursday afternoon in New Zealand).

He was shift leader Luis Urzua, who is credited with holding his comrades together during their ordeal.

There were scenes of frenzied celebration throughout Chile as the 54-year-old stepped out of the rescue capsule that had hauled him and his men one by one 700 metres to the surface.

The marathon operation ran smoothly, with each journey to the surface taking about 11 minutes rather than the expected 15 to 20.

Mr Urzua told Chile's President Sebastian Pinera - who greeted each man as he emerged - that he was handing the shift over to him.

All have severe dental infections

After emotional reunions with their families and rescuers the miners were taken to hospital. All have severe dental infections, and some have eye problems. One has been diagnosed with pneumonia, although his condition is not thought to be serious.

Six rescue specialists sent down the shaft to help the miners out were also safely brought back to the surface.

The men were trapped in the San Jose mine in northern Chile on 5 August after a rockfall caused a tunnel to collapse.

For the first 17 days, they were believed to be dead, and their record-breaking story of survival has captured the world's attention.

Millions of television viewers around the globe watched the rescue.

President predicts image change

Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, who was present at the rescue operation, says he believes it will change his country's image in the world.

He says he hopes people will now associate Chile with the united national effort to get the miners out, rather than with the years of military rule.

The men were met with cheers, hugs and tears from family, rescuers and officials. The oldest of them, Mario Gomez, 63, says the ordeal has changed him.

"Sometimes you need for something to happen in your life to really reflect and understand that we only have one life," he says, "and one thing is that one needs to change. I changed - I'm a different man."

Among a flood of invitations and gifts, Real Madrid and Manchester United have invited the miners - many of whom are avid soccer fans - to watch them play in Europe.

A flamboyant local singer-turned-businessman has also given them $US10,000 each, while Apple boss Steve Jobs has sent them all the latest iPod.

Embassy staff break out the bubbly

In Wellington, staff at the Chilean Embassy drank champagne, waved paper flags and sang their national anthem as the last of the miners emerged.

Consul Jorge Valenzuela says the ordeal has unified his country.

The embassy has been inundated with emails of support and congratulations, he says.