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 today and punched the air, freed by rescue crews drilling round-the-clock by hand.
Hundreds of people who had gathered at the mine gates erupted in cheers when Brant Webb, 37, and Todd Russell, 34, emerged, their head torches glowing in the pre-dawn light.
The miners 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.
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.
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 today'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 huge 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 who had been waiting for hours above ground at the mine gate. Rescuers could work only 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 of 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 that crowds could see the two men who have become national heroes. Hundreds of people lined the streets, whooping, clapping, and cheering as the vehicles passed en route to a hospital in nearby Launceston.
''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 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 that 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, even ice pops, followed.
Throughout the rescue, the good spirits of the miners, both married with three children, amazed those struggling to reach them. Little has been seen of the miners' families since the initial news of their survival. TV networks and newspapers were rumored to have paid substantial sums for exclusive rights to interview the men.
Knight's family planned to hold his funeral today in Launceston. They had delayed the service, hoping the trapped miners would be able to attend.