The first of Chile's 33 rescued miners were preparing to be released from hospital yesterday and return to the homes they last saw more than 70 days ago.
The men, who were reunited overnight on the third floor of the Regional Hospital in Copiapo, are in remarkably good health. Several were due to be released last night, said Dr Jorge Montes, a director of the team leading their treatment. "Some have some kind of minor complications, but nothing to worry about."
Earlier, "Los 33" were seen for the first time since the end of the 24-hour operation that saw them lifted one by one to freedom. Wearing dressing gowns, pyjamas, grey T-shirts, and dark glasses to protect their eyes, they posed for a joint photograph in their darkened ward with Chile's President, Sebastian Pinera.
On a day that saw them showered with offers of jobs, money, holidays, foreign trips, and (perhaps) a papal audience, Mr Pinera raised a more parochial prospect: a game of football, between the miners and the Chilean cabinet. "The winners will get La Mondea [the presidential palace] for the night," he joked. "The losers will go back down the mine!"
Before they get into training, the miners will first have to fully recover from the more than two months they spent trapped underneath the Atacama desert an hour's drive from the hospital. For some, it could take some time: though he looked in good health when he emerged from the Phoenix escape capsule, the eldest, 63-year-old Mario Gomez, is suffering from pneumonia.
Three other miners went under general anaesthetic yesterday for operations to fix dental problems that developed during their ordeal. The first 17 days before the men were located by rescuers were particularly damaging to their teeth; one of the first things they requested upon their discovery was a supply of toothbrushes.
Skin and eye ailments have affected the majority of the group, and a few have lung problems and breathing difficulties, but the last of them will nonetheless be released on Monday, predicted Chile's health minister, Jamie Manalich, who jollified the press conference where he made that announcement by singing several bars of the Mamas & the Papas hit "Monday, Monday".
In the longer term, the priority of doctors will be to ensure that the men – whose medical care is being funded by Chile's government for at least six months – can cope with any psychological trauma that might remain from their time underground.
The youngest, Jimmy Sanchez, who is 19 and has a four-month-old daughter, appears to be having a hard time adjusting to his return, and could be suffering from depression, said his doctor Guillermo Swett. "He spoke very little and didn't seem to connect."
Some of the other miners are said by a hospital spokesman to be showing "slightly worrying psychological signs," but he stressed that, given the severity of their ideal, they generally seem remarkably robust. "They have had to undergo two months of stress, but the majority seem to be dealing with this absolutely fine."
Chile is meanwhile recovering from a 48-hour party which began on Tuesday when Florencia Avalos became the first to be freed, and continued into the early hours of Thursday morning, when Manuel Gonzalez became the last rescuer to leave the mine.
A huge crowd gathered at the town square in Copiapo, where a big screen had been erected to broadcast the final stage of the rescue, and where brass bands and local pop stars entertained revellers from a sound-stage surrounded by Chilean flags and banners proclaiming: "Misión cumplida" [mission complete].
When shift leader Luiz Urzua became the last of the 33 men to "clock off," as local newspapers have put it, the crowd blew vuvuzelas, waved red, white and blue flags and sang the national anthem. Cars honking their horns gridlocked the streets into the wee hours.
Capitalising on the public euphoria, President Pinera, a right-of-centre business mogul before he entered politics, declared: "We aren't the same that we were before the collapse. Today Chile is a country much more unified, stronger and much more respected and loved in the entire world."
He promised "radical" changes to regulation of the mining industry, along with tougher safety laws to improve how businesses treat their workers. The San Jose mine's design, which did not include an exit shaft to use in case of emergency, was in theory illegal.
"Never again in our country will we permit people to work in conditions so unsafe and inhuman as they worked in the San Jose mine, and in many other places in our country," he said.
The spoils for the rescued
While the men were underground, Real Madrid sent signed shirts and other gifts to the miners. They included photo albums of the players and an invitation to watch a game in Madrid. During the operation, Chilean Mining Minister Laurence Golborne said: "I hope the miners are able to enjoy these gifts." Manchester United has also extended an invitation for the miners to attend a game.
A Greek mining company has promised to fly each of the miners and a partner to Greece for a week-long holiday in the sun. An Italian television company has reportedly offered to take them to Italy, while the Chilean football players' association offered a trip to South Korea.
And for Edison Pena, a self-proclaimed Elvis Presley fan and the 12th of the miners to be lifted to the surface, an all-expenses paid trip to Graceland is waiting for him when he leaves hospital.
A personal gift from Steve Jobs – the latest IPod for each of the miners, according to Reuters.
A local singer-turned-businessman has already announced a gift of $10,000 for each man. Other financial offers are expected to follow in payment for interviews, as well as proceeds from books and films.
The Bolivian President Evo Morales has promised a strip of land to Carlos Mamani, the sole Bolivian among the rescued miners.
One sushi chain based in Santiago offered free sushi for a year. But timing is everything in matters of promotion, and the offer was made while the men were still underground. The company was forced to apologise.