SAN JOSE MINE, Chile (AP) - The miners who spent 69 agonizing days deep under the Chilean earth were hoisted one by one to freedom Wednesday, their rescue moving with remarkable speed while their countrymen erupted in cheers and the world watched transfixed.
Beginning at midnight and sometimes as quickly as once every 30 minutes, the men climbed into a slender cage nearly a half-mile underground and made a smooth ascent into fresh air. By early afternoon, more than half the men - 20 of 33 - had been rescued.
In a meticulously planned operation, they were monitored by video on the way up for any sign of panic. They had oxygen masks, dark glasses to protect their eyes from unfamiliar daylight and sweaters for the jarring climate change, subterranean swelter to the chillier air above.
They emerged looking healthier than many had expected and even clean-shaven, and at least one, Mario Sepulveda, the second to taste freedom, bounded out and thrust a fist upward like a prizefighter.
"I think I had extraordinary luck. I was with God and with the devil. And I reached out for God," he said as he awaited the air force helicopter ride to a nearby hospital where all the miners were to spend 48 hours under medical observation.
The operation moved past the halfway point with the rescue of the 17th miner, a 56-year-old electrician named Omar Reygadas who helped organized life underground. His fourth great-grandchild was born a month after the men were sealed into the mine's lower reaches by an Aug. 5 collapse of 700,000 tons of rock.
As it traveled down and up, down and up, the rescue capsule was not rotating as much inside the 2,041-foot escape shaft as officials expected, allowing for faster trips, and officials said the operation could be complete by sunrise Thursday, if not sooner.
The anxiety that had accompanied the careful final days of preparation broke at 12:11 a.m., with the first rescue - Florencio Avalos, who emerged from the missile-like chamber and smiled broadly after his half-mile journey. He hugged his sobbing 7-year-old son and wife and then President Sebastian Pinera, who has been deeply involved in an effort that had become a matter of national pride.
Avalos was followed an hour later by the most ebullient of the group, Sepulveda, whose shouts were heard even before the capsule peeked above the surface. He hugged his wife and handed out souvenir rocks from the mine to laughing rescuers.
No one in recorded history has survived as long trapped underground as the 33 men. For the first 17 days, no one even knew whether they were alive. In the weeks that followed, the world was captivated by their endurance and unity.
Health Minister Jaime Manalich told a news conference after eight miners were rescued that all of them were in good health, and none has required any special medication, not even the diabetic among them.
Chile exploded in joy and relief at the first, breakthrough rescue just after midnight in the coastal Atacama desert.