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SAN JOSE MINE, Chile: The rescue of 33 miners trapped deep underground in Chile for 10 long weeks sped towards a successful finale on Wednesday with two-thirds of the men winched to safety, triggering joy around the world at their improbable salvation.
Proud Chilean officials believed the last of the miners could be freed before midnight (0300 GMT Thursday), brought to the surface in a narrow, missile-like capsule dubbed the Phoenix to symbolise their "rebirth."
Euphoria met the start of the rescue operation early Wednesday: with horn blasts, flashing lights, congratulations, and a global, shared sense that human ingenuity, this time, had cheated death.
The miners stepping out of the capsule after a 15-minute ascent up a 622-metre escape shaft pumped their fists in the sky they had not seen for 69 days, or dropped to their knees in prayer.
"I have changed, I am a different man," said Mario Gomez, the ninth to be rescued and, at 63, the oldest of the group.
"I have been with God and with the devil," said the second miner to be saved, Mario Sepulveda, 40. "I seized the hand of God, it was the best hand. I always knew God would get us out of there."
As the sun was setting over the San Jose gold and copper mine where the dramatic event was unfolding, 25 miners had been brought to the surface, and eight were left waiting their turn.
"We hope to successfully complete this process by the end of the day," Mining Minister Laurence Golborne told reporters at the mine. "We moved very rapidly, faster than originally planned."
A team of six rescue specialists had been sent down to the miners to help them get harnessed in the Phoenix capsule.
They would be the last to leave, in the first hours of Thursday, ending the rescue.
The inspirational operation has mesmerised Chile and audiences worldwide, with an estimated billion people glued to television screens and the Internet.
Words of congratulation poured in from presidents Barack Obama of the United States, Nicolas Sarkozy of France, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, as well as Pope Benedict XVI and other dignitaries.
The US space agency NASA, which provided advice on how to sustain the miners during their long wait underground, hailed "the courageous miners" and their rescuers.
First out of the mine was 31-year-old Florencio Avalos, who hugged his young son and wife, then President Sebastian Pinera and other officials.
Sepulveda, the second rescued, quickly became a media darling for his energetic appearance that earned him the nickname "Super Mario."
He gave out rocks from the bottom of the mine as gifts and led laughing officials in a celebratory football song.
Gomez, who stepped out wearing a breathing mask to combat chronic breathing difficulties, said his life had been transformed.
"Often something has to happen to you before you stop and think and understand that you only have one life, and then you think what you have to change," he told Pinera.
Others following included the only non-Chilean in the group, Bolivian miner Carlos Mamani, 23. Bolivian President Evo Morales flew in on Wednesday to personally escort him home.
Also brought to the top was the youngest of the miners, Jimmy Sanchez, 19, and Esteban Rojas, a 44-year-old who promised a church wedding to his long-term partner Jessica Yanez while he was languishing in the tunnel.
Yonni Barrios, the 21st miner to be hauled to the surface, stepped out of the escape capsule to be hugged by... his long-time mistress, Susana Valenzuela, not his wife, whom he had also invited.
"I"m glad he's safe, it's a miracle from God. But I'm not going to go see the rescue. He asked me to, but it turned out he had also asked the other lady and I have decency. One thing is clear: it's her or me," the wife, Marta Salinas, was quoted as telling Chilean media.
All the men were pale, and wore special dark sunglasses to protect their weakened eyes from the natural light. Many tasted freedom overnight, stepping out of the rescue capsule to breathe in the cold air of the Atacama desert.
They were immediately taken to a field hospital at the mine for tests, and several were then flown to a regional hospital in the nearest town of Copiapo, where two floors were reserved for them.
Doctors at the hospital said the 11 currently at the hospital were doing "better than any prognosis," with two exceptions - Sepulveda and Gomez, both of whom suffered from silicosis, an incurable disease common among miners in which dust inhaled caused lesions in the lungs, making breathing difficult.
The miners' relatives, camped at the entrance to the mine, cheered and wept as each escape was captured by the cameras of 2,000 international journalists.
Several of the families, who had already welcomed back their loved ones from the pit, said they would not leave until all 33 miners were hauled up.
"We're going to stay until the last," said Florencio Avalos's father Alfonso, waiting for his other son, Renan, still among the miners to be rescued.
The miners themselves hope the worldwide attention on their ordeal will deliver them lucrative sponsorship and movie deals so they can live comfortably - many hoping they never have to enter a mine again.
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