WATCH: Joy as two months of operations, led by the Chilean navy but including specialist agencies from around the world, culminates in the rescue of the first several of the miners. (Reuters video)
There were scenes of jubilation and relief in Chile today as miner Florencio Avalos stepped out of a rescue capsule and took his first breath of fresh air in 10 weeks -- the first of 33 trapped miners to be rescued from 700 meters beneath the earth's surface. Until Avalos's rescue shortly after midnight local time, rescuers were uncertain if their carefully laid plans would work.
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, standing next to the specially designed "Fenix" capsule as Avalos emerged, said a rescue of such a magnitude has never been attempted.
"Florencio [Avalos] expressed to me the gratitude that he and his colleagues felt having been trapped during these 69 days -- the gratitude toward Chile, toward Chileans," Pinera said. "From the first moment, they felt that they weren't alone. They heard our words, our compromise to do all humanly possible."
The rescue of miners from the hot, humid gold and copper mine beneath Chile's northern Atacama desert is being called a miracle.
But there is a long way to go before the operation is complete.
One-by-one, the miners are being lifted to the surface through a narrow rescue shaft. Officials say it could take roughly 48 hours before the last miner is pulled from beneath the ground.
Mario Sapulveda, the second miner to be winched to surface, told reporters that the long ordeal has strengthened his faith in God and his confidence in what people can do when they work together. He also said the miners' ordeal should be seen as an opportunity to improve safety conditions for miners in Chile and around the world.
"I believe that if we have the possibility in life to face something like we have faced, we can face many other situations as well," Sepulveda said. "But I am very content that this happened to me because I believe this is a moment in which change will be made. I believe that in this country they have to understand this is an opportunity to enact change. There has to be a lot of reforms made in the labor market."
President Pinera pledged that "lessons learned" from the miners' ordeal will never be forgotten.
"The miners have shown, just like [Chile's February] earthquake victims and those who are working to reconstruct what the earthquake destroyed, that when Chile unites -- and we always do in the face of adversity -- we are capable of big things," Pinera said. "And the soul of our country shines its best in adverse times."
The men have become unwilling world record holders for the length of time workers have survived underground after a mining accident.
For the first 17 days of their ordeal, they were all thought to be dead. But contact was established when a tiny exploratory shaft reached the underground chamber where they were trapped.
Supplies were sent into the chamber of the San Jose mine and communications links were established to help the miners cope with a 52-day wait while the rescue shaft was being drilled and the capsule system set up to pull them to the surface.
With the eyes of the world on their extraordinary struggle, more than 1,300 journalists from around the world were gathered near the rescue site today to cover the final chapter of the miner's epic survival story. Also nearby are the relatives of the trapped miners.
Georgina Galleguillo, a niece of miner Jorge Galleguillo, told reporters that the happiness of the families today was almost indescribable.
"[There's] immense happiness," Galleguillo said. "It makes the heart tighten, and it makes you feel like crying, but the happiness is huge."
But psychologists warn that some of the miners could face difficulties in the weeks and months ahead as they may have to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. The miners also will have to deal with the sudden celebrity status that has been thrust upon them as a result of their ordeal.
written by Ron Synovitz with agency reports and contributions from RFE/RL's Courtney Brooks