BEIJING • Hundreds of rescuers who had drilled a shaft to trapped miners and kept them alive cheered as the first man winched to the surface weakly raised his arm.
The third miner lifted to the surface yelled "Thank you" after he came up, Qilu Net, Shandong province's main state-run news website, reported.
The rescued men were rushed to a hospital, accompanied by a crush of reporters and cameras, but were too weak to speak about their ordeal.
The four miners emerged alive after 36 days trapped 219m underground in eastern China, following a huge, intensely reported rescue effort in a country plagued by mine disasters.
All four men were among 29 miners caught when a cavernous gypsum mine in Pingyi County, Shandong, collapsed on Dec 25. Eleven were rescued soon after, and one was found dead.
The mine's principal owner, Mr Ma Congbo, committed suicide at the mine two days after it collapsed, drowning himself in a well, state-run media reported.
Thirteen miners were still unaccounted for yesterday. The government has said that it will keep searching for them, although hopes that they remain alive appear to be faint.
In all my 30 years doing this, this was the most trying and the most difficult rescue.
MR DU BINGJIAN, a mine disaster expert who was brought in to help with rescue efforts which were hindered by a number of factors such as tumbling earth and flooding
"In all my 30 years doing this, this was the most trying and the most difficult rescue," said Mr Du Bingjian, a mine disaster expert who was brought in to help.
The rescuers drilled a new shaft to retrieve miners deep below the surface, rather than clearing shafts already in place, following an innovative technique used to save 33 miners trapped in Chile in 2010 and nine in Pennsylvania in 2002, Chinese media reports said. But there were many setbacks.
At first, the rescuers were unsure whether anyone had survived underground after the mine tunnels collapsed and flooded. But after five days of drilling exploratory holes, they established contact with the trapped men and created a small shaft to send down food, medicine and other supplies, and to keep in phone contact.
The men huddled in an area of about 7 sq m, where they subsisted on milk, water and bread made from rice, sorghum and peanuts, while fearing that new collapses or flooding could kill them.
But several attempts to drill a wider shaft to haul the men out did not succeed, as drills failed or tumbling earth and flooding choked off the holes, which had to pass through crumbly sandstone and limestone. As days turned into weeks, the miners thought they would die entombed in the mine, said Mr Du.
"They were all wondering whether up on the surface we'd give up on rescuing them," he said, according to China National Radio. "When we called, they'd cry and down in the mine, you could hear the sound of howling and wailing."
After nearly a month, the men told the rescuers: "Tell it to us straight, we know that there's no hope of rescue."
But about a thousand police officers, government workers and other rescuers on the surface kept trying. They sent down videos of their operation to reassure the men that they had not been forgotten. They also sent down playing cards.
The trapped men - Mr Zhao Zhicheng, Mr Li Qiusheng, Mr Guang Qingji and Mr Hua Mingxi - were lifted one by one to the surface in a harness, each greeted by a burst of camera flashes after more than 860 hours deprived of sunlight.
To protect their eyes, they were blindfolded, and yesterday they were transferred from intensive care units to general wards, where doctors said they were in stable condition.
NEW YORK TIMES