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COPIAPO, Chile: Chile beamed with pride on Thursday after its flawless rescue of 33 trapped miners captivated the world, as the survivors began to adjust to their new lives in the glare of the media spotlight.
"Our plan worked, that's why we're so satisfied," Mining Minister Laurence Golborne told reporters at the San Jose mine outside the northern city of Copiapo where the drama unfolded.
"If this story was a movie, no one would have believed that this story would have happened as it has now," said Golborne, the public face of the unprecedented rescue effort since its launch back in August.
The first miners were to be released later Thursday from Copiapo's hospital, where all had been taken for check-ups after emerging one by one from the escape shaft on Wednesday to euphoric scenes.
Three miners, who were not named, had surgery under general anaesthetic for serious dental problems, while a fourth was being treated for pneumonia. Two others were diagnosed with the lung disease silicosis that is common among miners.
Hospital deputy director Jorge Montes said most of the men were in surprisingly good health given their 10-week ordeal, adding that some would be returning home Thursday.
Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, who had been at the mine over the 22-hour rescue to greet the emerging miners, hailed their "miracle" salvation during a visit to the hospital.
He sparked cheers when he suggested they form a football team under one of their number who used to be a professional player, Frank Lobos, for an October 25 game against rescuers and officials.
"The winners will get Moneda (the presidential palace), and the losers will have to go back into the mine," Pinera joked.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon meanwhile called the rescue an "extraordinary triumph of human ingenuity and the strength of the human spirit" as he passed his warmest wishes to Pinera.
The miners still wore the dark glasses given to them to protect their weakened eyes when they made the claustrophobic, 15-minute journey up from the underground cavern in the narrow Phoenix 2 rescue capsule.
But they also wore fresh clothes, gray t-shirts and hospital trousers, some in blue bathrobes, and were cleanly shaven - looking much fresher than the drawn-out figures who joyously tasted freedom a day earlier.
The miners now have the challenge of charting out a life forever changed by their ordeal. Suddenly, they are household names in Chile and media stars around the world. They have been flooded with requests for interviews, and can even set their own price.
But Omar Reygadas, the son of one of the miners with the same name, said, the men wanted everything to be shared equally.
"The miners have told the authorities they want to set up a foundation. They want it to cover everything (royalties from documentaries, films or books), and to cover all 33," he told AFP.
All but given up for dead, the men survived against the odds on meagre rations for 17 days before a drill probe miraculously found them. And they have formed a close-knit bond.
Television stations around the globe covered their rescue live, while Facebook and Twitter users swapped stories about the miners and newspapers everywhere made them the front-page story turning them into instant celebrities.
Officials said they would seal up the escape shaft at the San Jose mine, which Pinera has placed a symbolic metal cover over, and dismantle the equipment there. Much of it was being tagged for inclusion in a future museum.
The president said the long rescue operation had cost up to 20 million dollars, around a third of which Golborne estimated had been donated by private companies in the form of machinery and expertise.
Families of the miners were eager to seize the new chance they had been given with their loved ones.
"It's a new life about to begin," said Belgica Ramirez, the sister-in-law of Mario Gomez, the oldest of the miners saved.
Silvia Segovia, sister of rescued miner Victor Segovia, voiced the hope of many relatives when she said she wished the men would now be done with mining for good.
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