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The first of the 33 men rescued from a Chilean mine left the hospital Thursday, with more expected to follow on Friday and over the weekend.

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Rescued Bolivian-born miner Carlos Mamani, wearing sunglasses, is surrounded by unidentified relatives as he arrives home in Copiapo, Chile, on Thursday. ((Natacha Pisarenko/Associated Press))

Doctors said three men were given clearance to go back to their families and into a blaze of instant celebrity after their health was checked at a hospital in Copiapo, Chile.

As they prepared to reunite with their families, the miners, who spent more than two months trapped underground, were also in demand around the world.

Soccer teams in Europe want them to come to their stadiums; television hosts are looking to book them on their shows; and the organizers of the New York marathon have even invited Edison Pena, who jogged in the mine tunnels while trapped underground, to the race next month.

Pena was among the three men released Thursday evening from hospital. They left by a side door and got into a waiting van.

Chilean television showed Pena receiving a boisterous greeting from applauding neighbours when he got to his house. He called the response "very beautiful," and added: "I thought I would never return.

Earlier Thursday, Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, who was on hand to greet the miners as they were lifted out of the mine one by one, visited them in hospital.

No one has ever survived underground as long as the miners, who were trapped more than 600 metres below after a tunnel collapsed on Aug. 5.

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Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, centre, greets rescued miner Omar Reygadas at the hospital in Copiapo on Thursday while visiting the 33 men freed from the San Jose mine. ((Jose Manuel de la Maza/Chilean Presidential Press Office/Associated Press))

The complex rescue effort unfolded without any major problems and all of the miners were back on the surface less than 24 hours after the final rescue operation began Tuesday.

Thousands of people took to the streets across Chile after the last miner, shift foreman Luis Urzua, was winched out of the San Jose mine late Wednesday.

"Chile is not the same country that it was 69 days ago," Pinera said in a televised address after the rescue.

After the last miner surfaced, Pinera joined the rescue workers, miners and the families who had been camped out at the rescue site in singing the national anthem.

REPLAY CHAT:

Mental health expert answers your questions on what's next for the 33 men.

Rescue crews waved the Chilean flag and released 33 balloons while family members who had been camped out at the mine cracked open bottles of champagne.

People who gathered in plazas across Chile were singing and honking their horns, CBC's Connie Watson reported.

In Copiapo, where many of the miners live, about 3,000 people gathered in the town square to watch a live broadcast of the rescue.

"The miners are our heroes," said teary-eyed Copiapo resident Maria Guzman, 45.

"It's a proud moment for Chile, pulling off a daunting rescue that many believed couldn't be done, let alone run so smoothly," Watson said.

Carlos Reygadas — whose cousin Omar Reygadas was one of the men trapped after the Aug. 5 collapse at the gold and copper mine — followed the rescue effort from his home in British Columbia.

"I know he's OK, he's alive, but I wonder what's going to happen to them, not just my cousin, after this trauma," Reygadas said.

"I know for sure their lives will be different, totally different."

Miners evaluated

The miners, who were given sunglasses to shield their eyes from the unaccustomed light, were all placed on stretchers and evaluated by a waiting medical team before being taken to the hospital.

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Relatives of miners celebrate when the last miner, Luis Urzua, is hoisted to the surface at the San Jose mine near Copiapo late Wednesday.

Health Minister Jaime Manalich said most of the men were in good condition, although many were experiencing anxiety and trouble sleeping after months underground.

"Two of them have a chronic condition known as miner's lung, made worse by 69 days trapped underground," Watson reported.

Another has severe pneumonia and two others have serious dental infections that will require surgery, officials said.

Psychologists and mental health professionals were also on hand to help the miners deal with any emotional challenges, officials said.

Dr. Guillermo Swett said miner Jimmy Sanchez, who at 19 years old is the youngest of the group and the father of a four-month-old baby, appeared to be having a hard time adjusting and seemed depressed.

"He spoke very little and didn't seem to connect," Swett said.

The miners weren't able to communicate with emergency crews on the surface until Aug. 22, when they were able to send a handwritten note to the surface.

Rescue teams sent extra supplies, including a high-protein liquid diet donated by NASA, down a tunnel to help the miners prepare for the trip up the narrow shaft to the surface.

Mine to stay closed

Meanwhile, the president said the San Jose mine will "definitely never open again."

FAQs 

Learn more about the rescue operation.

Pinera also said the conditions that allowed the accident "will not go unpunished. Those who are responsible will have to assume their responsibility."

Pinera, who fired top regulators and created a commission to investigate the accident after the collapse, said he would in the coming days be offering a new proposal for better protecting Chilean workers.

With files from The Associated Press