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Confetti and vuvuzelas as first miners finally go home

Cheers, confetti and a plate of fish sandwiches greeted the first survivors of the San Jose mine rescue to return home early yesterday, as three of the fittest members of "Los 33" were given the all-clear to be discharged from hospital in Copiapo.

Juan Illanes, Edison Pena, and Carlos Mamani were greeted by crowds of neighbours waving Chilean flags and blowing vuvuzelas as they stepped from cars outside the homes they'd last seen on 5 August, the fateful date of the rockfall that trapped them underground for almost 70 days.

A further 28 of the men were reportedlt discharged yesterday evening. Although several have been forced to go under general anaesthetic for dental operations, and one, Mario Gomez, is on antibiotics for pneumonia, their robust state of health has surprised delighted doctors.

At a press conference outside the hospital, its deputy director, Dr Jorge Montes, said some of the men appear a touch withdrawn and overawed by their experiences, but he expected them to make a full recovery. "We don't see any long-term problems of a psychological or a medical nature," he said.

Still wearing dark wraparound sunglasses to protect their eyes, which have not yet grown accustomed to normal light levels, the first three of the men to return home stopped to thank onlookers who had waited long into Thursday night for their return.

Mr Pena, 34, said he was astonished by the size of the crowd. "We are not pop stars or anything, we're just ordinary people," he said. "Thank you for believing that we were still alive. People's prayers gave us courage to keep going and not sit around waiting to be rescued."

He added: "I never dreamt that all of this might have happened. I hope it will never happen again. It was really awful. I thought we weren't ever going to come out of that place alive."

Mr Pena, an Elvis Presley fan, has been invited on an all-expenses-paid trip to Graceland, the former home of his idol near Memphis. It is one of dozens of gifts, including foreign holidays and trips to European football matches, that have been offered to the men.

Mr Llanes paused outside his modest breeze block home on the outskirts of Copiapo to tell locals and journalists that "what happened was an example of survival ... Now I want to finally eat a salmon sandwich. You have to keep your spirits up!"

Carlos Mamani, the lone Bolivian in the group, whose rescue has led to a temporary thaw in diplomatic relations between his nation and Chile, spoke of his gratitude for his adopted nation, adding: "I am so grateful to all of you. I never imagined any of this."