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Chilean President Sebastian Pinera holds a note on Sunday from the 33 miners trapped deep underground in the country's north. They might be stuck there until Christmas. ((Hector Retamal/Reuters))

Thirty-three miners trapped deep underground for 17 days in northern Chile were found to be alive Sunday, the country's president confirmed.

A probe sent early Sunday near the site of a shelter came back with a handwritten note: "All 33 of us are fine in the shelter."

"We are overjoyed at the news," President Sebastian Pinera said at the rescue site as he euphorically waved the message written in red letters.

Authorities and relatives of the miners hugged, climbed a nearby hill, planted 33 flags and sang the national anthem. The probe had been sent 690 metres deep into the collapsed mine near the city of Copiapo, about 725 kilometres north of Santiago. 

The miners' ordeal may have just begun: rescuers say it could take as long as four months — until around Christmas — to get them out.

Mine rescues

(Listed in descending order of time spent trapped in mine)

  • July 2009: Three men were rescued after spending 25 days in a mine in China's Guizhou province.
  • January 1983: Emergency workers rescued two coal miners in northeast China. The pair had survived 23 days in the mine.
  • September 1982: Rescuers saved four South Korean coal miners who had been trapped for 14 days.
  • May 2006: Two miners in Tasmania, Australia, were rescued after 14 days.
  • August 1963: Two trapped miners were freed after 14 days in the Sheppton Mine in Pennsylvania.
  • November 2005: A coal miner, trapped for 11 days, was rescued from a mine in northern China.
  • May 1968: Rescue workers helped free six miners who had been trapped for 10 days in West Virginia.
  • July 2002: Nine coal miners were rescued after surviving eight days in a mine in northwestern China.
  • July 1996: Three miners survived eight days trapped in a flooded mine in southern China.
  • May 1972: Two miners were rescued from Idaho's Sunshine silver mine, seven days after a massive fire broke out that killed 91 workers.
  • August 2007: Two brothers emerged from a collapsed pit in China after being trapped for six days.
  • October 1958: Twelve coal miners survived after being trapped for six days in a mine at Springhill, N.S.

The men have already been trapped underground longer than all but a few rescued miners in recent history. Last year, three miners survived 25 days trapped in a flooded mine in southern China, and two miners in northeast China were rescued after 23 days in 1983.

Few other rescues have taken more than two weeks. For the moment, however, news that the men even survived the Aug. 5 tunnel collapse overwhelmed all other details.

A video camera lowered down the probe's path showed some of the miners, stripped to the waist in the underground heat, waving happily. But they weren't able to establish audio contact, Pinera told reporters at the scene.

"I saw eight or nine of them. They were waving their hands. They got close to the camera and we could see their eyes, their joy," he said.

Joyous news

Word of the miners' survival was a rush of good news in a country still rebuilding from a magnitude 8.8 earthquake Feb. 27 and its resulting tsunami, which together killed at least 521 people and left 200,000 homeless.

Hundreds gathered, cheering and waving flags, in the capital's Plaza Italia where Chileans traditionally celebrate national victories. Along the great length of Chile, people were glued to their television and computer screens as the drama unfolded in live feeds from the remote mine.

"I am OK, thanks to God. I hope to get out soon," wrote one of the trapped miners, Mario Gomez. "Patience and faith. God is great and the help of my God is going to make it possible to leave this mine alive."

Gomez, 63, appeared to be aware that it will take a long time for rescuers to reach him and his fellow miners. "Even if we have to wait months to communicate. … I want to tell everyone that I'm good and we'll surely come out OK."

Mine officials and the workers' relatives had hoped the men reached a shelter inside the mine when the tunnel collapsed. But they had said the shelter's emergency air and food supplies would only last 48 hours.

Rescuers drilled repeatedly in an effort to reach the shelter, but failed seven times. They blamed the errors on the mining company's maps. According to Gomez's note, at least some of those probes were close enough that the trapped miners heard them. 

Hopes rose after the eighth attempt early Sunday, when they heard hammering sounds and sent down a probe. The miners put their two notes in a plastic bag and tied it to the end of the probe. Pinera triumphantly showed the bag to the crowd above ground and read out both notes.