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Hug for a hero

It was the moment the world rejoiced.

In front of a global audience, Florencio Avalos, 31, emerged from the darkness of the mine where he and 32 other men have been trapped for 69 days and was embraced by Chile’s President, Sebastian Pinera.

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Mr Avalos, who was also greeted by his wife and seven-year-old son, smiled broadly and gave a thumbs-up as he was led to an ambulance following his time deep below the desert. The miners’ ordeal marks the longest anyone has ever been trapped underground.

His rescue marked the start of a methodical operation to pull each of the 33 men to safety from the San Jose mine. Beginning at midnight local time yesterday, the men made a smooth ascent into fresh air, strapped into the specially made Phoenix capsule -- painted in the Chilean colours -- sometimes as quickly as one every 30 minutes.

By late last night 27 were pulled out to safety, but the president vowed they would not stop working until all the men were free.

The successful mission sparked scenes of jubilation at Camp Hope, where dozens of relatives were joined by media from across the world as each of the men, trapped underground since August 5, climbed into the rescue capsule to be transported through 625 metres of rock to freedom.

Mr Avalos’s uncle, Alberto, summed up the feelings of the strongly religious nation as the world watched the day’s events unfold. “This is a miracle from God,” he said.

Prime Minister David Cameron phoned Mr Pinera to congratulate him, and the Chilean President promised to share a cup of tea the British premier during a visit to Downing Street next week.

US President Barack Obama said: “This rescue is a tribute not only to the determination of the rescue workers and the Chilean Government but also the unity and resolve of the Chilean people who have inspired the world.”

There were regular celebrations as the men came up into the desert sun wearing sunglasses to protect them from the glare of bright lights. They wore T-shirts printed with Psalm 95:4 -- “In his hand are the depths of the earth and the mountain peaks belong to him.”

The second to emerge was Mario Sepulveda, whose shouts of joy resounded on the surface even before he arrived to the laughter of waiting relatives. He bounded out and thrust a fist upward like a boxer and distributed a bag of rocks from deep within the mine to rescue workers and Mr Pinera.

Mr Sepulveda said: “I think I had extraordinary luck. I was with God and with the devil. And I reached out for God.”

The men emerged looking healthier than many had expected and even clean-shaven.

After eight miners had been rescued, Health Minister Jaime Manalich said none had needed any special medication, not even the diabetic among them.

Remarkable images were shown on TV of the miners being rescued deep underground and from inside the capsule as it soared towards the surface.

Mr Pinera said: “This rescue operation has been so marvellous, so clean, so emotional that there was no reason not to allow the eyes of the world -- which have been watching this operation so closely -- to see it.”

“Hopefully the spirit of these miners will remain forever with us,” he added. “This country is capable of great things.”

The 21st man up, Yonni Barrios, 50, had his extra-marital affair exposed to the world during his time underground. He hugged his uncomfortable looking mistress Susana Valenzuela as he emerged into the daylight. His wife of 28 years Marta Salinas had decided not to attend after Ms Valenzuela had been attending prayer vigils for him at the camp.

Mario Gomez, at 63, the oldest miner, dropped to his knees after he emerged, bowed his head in prayer and clutched the Chilean flag. The lone foreigner, Bolivian Carlos Mamani, was overhead informing his country’s president Evo Morales, who visited him at a nearby clinic, how nice it was to breathe fresh air and see the stars.

The miners captivated the world with their endurance and unity as officials meticulously prepared their rescue after the national crisis began.

The miners’ health was closely monitored throughout the ride through the escape hole, which is 71cm in diameter, and a video camera in the capsule watched for panic attacks.

The men took aspirin and wore compression socks to prevent blood clotting in the quick ascent, and wore sweaters for the change in climate -- from about 90 degrees underground to near freezing on the surface after nightfall.

At the regional hospital in Copiapo, two floors were prepared for the miners to be evaluated.

The Health Minister said they were in good health, although they had high blood pressure caused by the amount of time spent so deep underground.

They have been invited to presidential palaces, take all-expenses-paid vacations and appear on countless TV shows. Book and movie deals are pending, along with job offers. Ladbrokes are even offering odds of 15/1 that one of the miners will go on to become the President of Chile by 2040.

Mr Sepulveda’s performance exiting from the shaft appeared to confirm what many Chileans thought when they saw his engaging personality in videos sent up from below -- that he could have a future as a TV personality.

But he tried to quash the idea as he spoke to viewers of Chile’s state television channel while sitting with his wife and children shortly after his rescue.

“The only thing I’ll ask of you is that you don’t treat me as an artist or a journalist, but as a miner,” he said.

“I was born a miner and I’ll die a miner.”

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