SANTIAGO // The rescue of Chile's 33 miners trapped 700 metres underground for more than two months is underway, with five of the miners winched to freedom so far.
The latest miner to be saved was the youngest of those trapped, 19-year-old Jimmy Sanchez.
The fourth was Carlos Mamani, a Bolivian who was greeted by his wife, Veronica, with a hug and kiss that knocked off her white hardhat as Chile's president and first lady held small Bolivian flags.
Mamani also gestured with both forefingers at the Chilean flag on his T-shirt and shouted "Gracias, Chile!" before a round of backslapping with rescuers.
The third to be rescued was Juan Illanes, 52, a married former soldier who urged his fellow miners to be disciplined and organised while trapped underground.
He hugged his wife and then climbed onto his cot, smiling broadly as he was wheeled away.
The second man captured was Mario Sepulveda, 39, who, only moments free of the rescue capsule, digging into a scuffed, yellow kit bag for gifts for his rescuers - rocks.
Seconds earlier, his epic ordeal ended when he emerged from the shaft grinning and hugged his wife. Sepulveda,
Florencio Avalos, 31, became the first man to leave the San Jose copper mine.
The miners are being brought to the surface of the mine in a custom-built capsule, with an oxygen mask and a belt to monitor their vital signs, after spending two months in their underground prison.
Alfonso Avalos had shed tears as he pushed past photographers to sit near the spot where his two sons – Florencio and Renan - would emerge. When his eldest son finally did, he was overcome.
“I am so overwhelmed with emotion because it’s been so long since we have seen him,” Alfonso said in comments broadcast by the state television channel TVN. “I am so content, so happy. Thank God that he emerged so strong.”
Despite the late hour, celebrations started almost immediately in the capital, Santiago, as some people blew vuvezuelas and chanted in the streets.
Florencio Avalos was the first miner chosen to be hauled up to the surface early this morning in the rocket-ship shaped capsule.
Mr Avalos, 31, who was in charge of filming the videos sent up to rescuers and relatives from inside the San Jose mine, stepped from the capsule where he was hugged by family members, rescuers and the country’s president, Sebastián Piñera.
"I know tonight there will be tears of happiness in all Chilean homes," the Chilean leader told reporters earlier. "We made a promise to never surrender, and we kept it."
"I am sure the miners will not be the same people they were before the accident, and the Chilean people will not be the same people."
At 700 metres, the living-room sized refuge where the men slept and worked is position just 128 metres short of the height of the Burj Khalifa.
The made-for-TV event has been followed daily by the nation and the world with the efficient, speedy rescue of the men a source of pride for Chileans.
The rescue was well-coordinated and other than starting at 11.30 pm, it was done with the broadcast media in mind.
President Piñera, wearing the same red jacket and white helmet as the rescue crews, stood near the entrance to the shaft, chatting with the men and then hugging them before the operation began. The government officials and rescue crews sang the country’s national anthem as the capsule was sent down with a rescuer for the first time and there were frequent chants of “Viva Chile.”
The families, sitting in a designated area on the edge of the mine, applauded the lowering of the first rescuer, Manuel Gonzalez, into the mine, and then everyone watched, via a camera, as Mr Gonzalez embraced each of the miners and Mr Alvalos prepared for his extraordinary ascent.
They hugged and cried as the capsule arrived back at the surface and the man, wearing sunglasses, a red hard hat, green overalls, and a white t-shirt with the signatures of all 33 men, stepped out.
“We made a promise to rescue the men and keep them safe and after that we promised them a safe rescue,” Mr Gonzalez said.
Watching events unfold on his television in his living room, Eric Urrutia, 21, a student at the University Academia Humanismo Cristiano , said he felt certain the men would all be rescued.
Meanwhile, about 50 parishioners held a prayer service for the miners at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Santiago.
Much of the rest of the nation were riveted to their tv screens as the men, who survived the first 17 days living on rations of tuna, biscuits and sips of milk before contact was made, saw moonlight for the first time.
In all, 33 men, including one Bolivian, who is expected to be the fourth miner rescued, are to be raised from the depths in the 21-inch wide, 420 kg “Phoenix” capsule – equipped with oxygen tanks, a wireless microphone and equipment to monitor the men’s hearts – which is being lowered into the shaft which a drill had burrowed through the solid rock over 33 days. The rescue is expected to take 48 hours.
The men, wearing green overalls made from water-resistant material and a pair of sunglasses, are being lifted up by a winch in a journey of about 16 minutes, travelling at speeds about one metre-per-second, the speed of an elevator.
* With agencies