BEACONSFIELD, Australia – Two Australian miners who survived for two weeks in a kennel-size cage trapped 3,000 feet underground walked out of the Beaconsfield Gold Mine early Tuesday and punched the air, freed by rescue crews drilling round-the-clock by hand.
The miners bear-hugged family and friends before clambering into two ambulances, still laughing and joking. Before going, they removed their identity tags from the wall outside the elevator — a standard safety measure carried out by all miners when they finish a shift.
They also handed out small cards that read: "The Great Escape. To all who have helped and supported us and our families, we cannot wait to shake your hand and (buy) you a Sustagen," referring to a nutrition drink the pair sipped during their ordeal. "Thanks is not enough."
Their rescue ends a drama that riveted the nation. Television networks cut live to the news that the men were saved. A fire engine drove with its siren wailing through Beaconsfield, a town in the southern state of Tasmania. A church bell not used since the end of World War II rang out in celebration.
Russell discharged himself from the hospital late Tuesday morning while Webb stuck around to enjoy a meal of steak and fries. Geoff Lyons, a spokesman for Launceston General Hospital, said the miners were "As fine as you could be after being locked underground in a meter square for a fortnight."
Webb and Russell were buried after a small earthquake April 25 trapped the safety cage they were working in under tons of rock. Miner Larry Knight, 44, was killed, and Tuesday's rescue came hours before Knight's family planned to hold his funeral.
Teams of specialist miners bored through more than 45 feet of rock over the past week with a giant drilling machine to reach the men. But cutting the final sections of the escape tunnel was slow and difficult, as the men used hand tools to avoid causing a cave-in.
For 300 hours, the two miners had huddled in the 4-foot-tall cage, too short to stand up in, until rescuers broke through the last crust of rock, five times harder than concrete, to reach them.
That last drilling took longer than expected, frustrating residents of the close-knit community waiting for hours above ground at the mine gate. Rescuers could only work one at a time on their backs in the cramped tunnel, wielding hand-held pneumatic drills, diamond-tipped chain saws and jackhammers as heavy as 88 pounds.
But the rest of the crust was compacted debris, easier to cut through.
Starting at 4:47 a.m., the men crept one at a time out the cage and into the narrow escape tunnel. Rescuers carried them through the tunnel on stretchers. A medical check of the men, still underground, found them in good health — able to stand on the elevator carrying them to the surface and to walk out of the mine.
The two ambulances drove the men slowly out the mine gates, with the doors open so crowds could see the two men who have become national heroes. Hundreds of townsfolk lined the streets, whooping, clapping and cheering as the vehicles passed en route to the hospital.
"The great escape is over," union official Bill Shorten told Nine Network television. "A giant rock of pressure has been taken off these families."
Seventeen men were working the night shift when the magnitude 2.1 quake sent tremors through the century-old mine. Fourteen men made it safely to the surface. But Webb, Russell and Knight had been working deep in the belly of the mine repairing a tunnel.
Webb and Russell survived because a huge slab of rock landed on their safety cage, forming a roof that kept them from being crushed. For five days they lived on a single cereal bar and water they licked from rocks, until rescue crews with thermal heat sensors detected them April 30.
The rescue team forced a narrow pipe through a hole drilled through the rock and pushed through supplies including water, vitamins and fresh clothing.
Comforts such as iPods, an inflatable mattress, egg and chicken sandwiches and even ice pops followed.
Throughout the rescue, the good spirits of the miners, both married with three children, amazed those struggling to reach them.
One man asked for a newspaper so he could start scanning the classifieds for another job. Another said that once freed, he wanted the ambulance to stop at McDonald's on the way to the hospital.
The families said neither they nor the miners planned to speak to the media Tuesday about their ordeal. TV networks and newspapers were rumored to have paid substantial sums for exclusive rights to interview the men and their relatives once they were rescued.
Knight's family planned to hold his funeral Tuesday in the nearby town of Launceston. They had delayed the service, hoping the trapped miners would be able to attend.
The tense drama recalled the rescue in 2002 of nine miners from the Quecreek Mine in Pennsylvania after being trapped for 77 hours underground — less than a quarter as long as the Australian miners spent awaiting rescue.
Australia has a strong mine safety record compared with many other countries. After the deaths of 16 West Virginia coal miners earlier this year, U.S. labor leaders and experts held up Australia as a possible role model.