Pumping fists or falling to their knees in prayer, nearly half the 33 miners trapped below ground in Chile for more than two months savoured their first taste of freedom on Wednesday, rising from the depths to a worldwide heroes' welcome.

Words of congratulation came in from Presidents Barack Obama of U.S., Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil.

At the San Jose mine in northern Chile, cheers and joyous tears greeted the arrival of each of the miners brought 622 meters (2,041 feet) to the surface in a narrow, missile-shaped rescue capsule.

The first out was 31-year-old Florencio Avalos, who breathed in his first lungful of fresh air before hugging his seven-year-old son and wife Monica, then President Sebastian Pinera and other officials.

The second miner to be rescued, Mario Sepulveda, 40, gave a euphoric display before admitting: “I have been with God and with the devil.”

His words gave insight into the despair that had gripped the men — who had initially been given up for dead after the mine collapse before a probe drill found them all alive 17 days later — and the ecstasy of their salvation.

“I seized the hand of God, it was the best hand. I always knew God would get us out of there,” he said.

Sepulveda, quickly nicknamed “Super Mario” for his energetic manner, produced rocks from the bottom of the mine as gifts to laughing officials and relatives and led them in a celebratory football song.

The others following included the only non-Chilean in the group, Bolivian miner Carlos Mamani, 23, who was greeted by Bolivian President Evo Morales who turned up after his rescue.

Also brought to the surface was the youngest of the miners, Jimmy Sanchez, 19.

“Welcome to life,” Mr. Pinera told Jorge Galleguillos, 56, who was the 11th man hoisted to safety.

“Thank you for believing that we were alive,” Galleguillos replied.

All the men appeared pale, but most looked to be in good health, and all wore special dark sunglasses to protect their weakened eyes from the natural light they had not seen for so long. The oldest man in the group and the ninth to emerge, Mario Gomez (63), was fitted with a special mask to combat his breathing problems.

All of the miners were convalescing in either a field hospital at the mine, or the regional hospital in the nearest town of Copiapo, a 12-minute helicopter ride away.

Health Minister Jaime Manalich told reporters the rescue operation had gone “better than planned”.

The rescue was the climax of a two-month old drama to keep the men alive, during which their every action and thought captivated their nation.

Before they were discovered, they had survived on meagre rations in an underground shelter and a trickle of water.

Officials quickly set up narrow holes to supply them with food, water, communications, oxygen and entertainment as they set up three drills to bore rescue shafts down to them.

Last weekend, one of those drills completed its shaft, well ahead of the Christmas deadline officials had originally feared would be needed.

That set the scene for the methodical extraction, one-by-one, of the men starting Wednesday.

The pace of the rescue suggested the last of the men would be hauled up sometime early Thursday, though officials have given themselves leeway of several hours more in case they encounter a problem.

Pinera, who took office in March, said the operation was “without comparison in the history of humanity.

Hundreds of relatives of the miners maintaining a vigil in a tent city at the entrance of the the remote gold and copper mine in the Chilean desert, cheered and wept at each escape.

Florencio Avalos's father Alfonso raised his arms in triumph

before hugging his wife, his face creased with emotion as he exclaimed: “It's a huge joy. I'm so happy. —AFP

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