The miners emerged just before daybreak after more than 320 hours trapped almost one kilometre underground.
Smiling and waving as the town’s church bell rang out for the first time since the end of World War II, Mr Russell and Mr Webb walked unaided into the arms of their cheering families.
“You can’t kill me, son,” a jubilant Mr Webb shouted.
The pair, who won the hearts of fellow Australians with their wit and courage throughout the two-week ordeal, handed out business cards marked “The Great Escape” after one of the most remarkable mine rescues in history.
“To all who have helped and supported us and our families, we cannot wait to shake your hand and shout you a Sustagen,” the cards read, referring to the protein drink which helped keep them alive.
The crowd cheered, clapped and wept as the bearded men waved from their ambulances as they rolled slowly through a citizen’s guard of honour as they were taken to hospital in Launceston for a medical assessment.
Clean bill of health
Mr Webb discharged himself after a few hours of check-ups, while Mr Russell remained in hospital a bit longer and enjoyed a hearty breakfast.
“There wasn’t any need to keep (Webb) in hospital and we said ‘Look, stay here and let things settle down a bit longer’. But he obviously wants to get home — as you would after two weeks,” Dr Ayre said.
The two miners were saved by a steel “cherry-picker” cage in which they had been working at the time. Mr Knight, who was driving the vehicle holding the cage, was crushed to death.
Although the cage had no roof, a massive rock fell on top of it, protecting them from being crushed or smothered by smaller rocks.
For five days it was feared that they were dead. Alone in the dark they survived on one muesli bar, drinking water dripping down the rocks.
But five days later contact was established and food and water was fed to them through a narrow pipe as rescuers began the painstaking process of tunnelling.
Working around the clock and drilling through some 16 metres of hard rock, rescuers finally broke through to the men.
“I can see your light,” screamed a rescuer as he broke through the earth separating them from freedom on Tuesday morning.
Mr Russell and Mr Webb shouted back: “I can see your light too.”
After they were brought to the surface the crowd erupted with joy and tributes began pouring in.
“I just want to say how relieved and elated the whole country is and what a huge tribute this is, the way everybody has pulled together,” Prime Minister John Howard said.
“It has been a wonderful demonstration of Australian mateship. And to those two men, I just want to say to them we are — all of us, 20 million of us — delighted to still have them with us,” Mr Howard said.
But it was a day of high emotions in the town of Beaconsfield as the funeral of Mr Knight got underway nearby in Launceston.
A group of about 100 motorcyclists, led by someone riding Mr Knight’s own Harley-Davidson, accompanied his hearse as it went from a local church to the cemetery.
Friends, family and mine colleagues told the service at St John’s Anglican Church that Mr Knight, 44, was an easy-going, calm man whose personal motto was “she’ll be right, sport”.
About 700 mourners filled the cathedral and spilled over to an adjoining building, and included Todd Russell, Beaconsfield mine manager Matthew Gill and Tasmanian Premier Paul Lennon.
“There’s not many things in life that take us through so many emotions at the same time,” God’s Squad motorcycle group spokesman Graham Mulligan said of the fatal rock fall, and the successful rescue.
“This whole ordeal has taken us from horror to shock, grief, sadness, joy and happiness – and then back to sadness again.”
Mr Knight’s daughter Lauren read out a letter she had written for her father’s birthday three years ago.
“You’re a wonderful, caring, understanding and forgiving father, a long-standing friend, my solid rock and inspiration,” she read.
After the 40 minute service, Mr Knight’s coffin was carried by friends and workmates from the church to a waiting hearse.
As the hearse departed 100 motorcycles started their engines with a deafening roar to form a guard of honour, lead by Mr Knight’s Harley-Davidson.