COPIAPO, Chile (Reuters) - Chile's trapped miners were shuttled up a narrow escape shaft to freedom and joyous reunions on Wednesday in a meticulously planned rescue operation that ended their two-month ordeal deep underground.
One by one, the miners climbed into a specially designed steel capsule barely wider than a man's shoulders and took a 15-minute journey through 2,050 feet of rock to the surface.
With 29 of the 33 miners freed in a rescue operation that advanced rapidly without hitches, officials expected to have the remaining men out by the end of the day instead of in 48 hours as originally estimated.
Scenes of jubilation erupted each time a miner arrived to a hero's welcome above the San Jose gold and copper mine in Chile's northern Atacama desert.
One of the latest miners to reach the surface was Franklin Lobos, a former professional soccer player. He received autographed jerseys from teams around the world during his two months underground. He was passed a soccer ball as soon as he left the rescue capsule and juggled it briefly with his feet.
"This was the toughest match of my life," he said.
Church bells rang out in Chile when the first miner was extricated and Chileans were glued to their televisions through the night, proud of their nation's ability to save the men.
"It's dangerous to say but things are going extraordinarily well," Chilean Health Minister Jaime Manalich said.
Large video screens were set up in public places across Chile to let people watch and cheer as each miner was hauled to the surface and freed.
The miners were whisked away for medical checkups and found to be in "more than satisfactory" health, except for one who has pneumonia and is being treated with antibiotics, the minister said.
That man is thought to be the oldest, 63-year-old Mario Gomez, who suffers from the lung disease silicosis. He was brought to the surface breathing from an oxygen mask.
Gomez, who has worked as miner for 50 years, was helped out of the escape capsule, and immediately dropped to his knees to pray. "I never lost faith that they would find us," he said.
Esteban Rojas also knelt and prayed on arrival. The 44-year-old had promised to wed his wife formally in church if he got out alive, to seal their civil marriage.
Euphoric rescuers, relatives and friends broke into cheers -- and tears -- as the miners emerged to breathe fresh air for the first time since the mine caved in on Aug 5.
"This is a miracle from God," said Alberto Avalos, the uncle of Florencio Avalos, a father of two who was the first to emerge shortly after midnight.
The miners have spent a record 69 days in the hot, humid bowels of the collapsed mine and, for the first 17 days, they were all believed to be dead.
Their story of survival captured global attention. Some 1,500 journalists were at the mine to report on the rescue operation, which was broadcast live around the world, including dramatic live images of the miners hugging rescuers who traveled down the shaft to their refuge deep in the mine.
Rescuers had found the men miraculously alive with a bore hole the width of a grapefruit. It served as a lifeline to pass hydration gels, water and food, as well as bibles, letters from their families and soccer videos to keep their spirits up.
Engineers deployed the escape capsule, dubbed "Phoenix" after the mythical bird that rose from the ashes, after boring the shaft down to the miners and reinforcing it with metal casing to prevent rocks from falling and blocking it.
Each man's journey to safety was taking about 15 minutes. The capsule traveled at about 3 feet (1 meter) per second, or a casual walking pace, and could speed to 10 feet a second if the miner being carried gets into trouble.
The miners could communicate with rescue teams using an intercom in the capsule. After emerging, they were taken to a nearby hospital for two days observation.
Each of the miners wore dark glasses to protect their eyes after spending so long in the dimly lit tunnel.
The flawless rescue was a big success for Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, who waited at the mouth of the shaft through the night and morning to greet and hug the men as they emerged from the red, white and blue capsule -- the Chilean colors.
Pinera, a billionaire entrepreneur who took office in March, ordered an overhaul of Chile's mine safety regulations after the accident. His popularity ratings have surged and his government has won praise for its handling of the crisis.
Among millions of people who watched television coverage of the rescue of the first miner was U.S. President Barack Obama, who hailed the operation as an inspiration to the world.
"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," Obama said in Washington.
Thirty-two of the miners are Chilean but one is from neighboring Bolivia and the rescue has helped improve ties between the two countries, locked in a dispute for more than a century over Bolivia's demands for access to the Pacific.
Bolivia's president, Evo Morales, was at the mine to welcome Bolivian miner Carlos Mamani as he was lifted to safety and he thanked Pinera and his government for rescuing him.
"I and the Bolivian people will never forget this great effort," Morales said at a news conference with Pinera.
Chile will continue to shut old, decrepit mines after the miners' saga, but the clampdown is unlikely to hit output in the world's top copper producer, industry insiders say.
The mining industry has played a central and often tragic role in Latin American history, starting with the hunger for gold and silver that drove the Spanish conquest and led to the enslavement of indigenous peoples.
For centuries, conditions in Latin American mines were miserable but they have improved dramatically in recent decades and the industry over the past 10 years has helped fuel a boom in some of the region's economies, including Chile.
Additional reporting by Antonio de la Jara, Fabian Cambero, Brad Haynes and Hugh Bronstein in Santiago; Juana Casas in Copiapo and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Peter Cooney