‘It was magical’: Thai boys relive moment of discovery by divers during cave ordeal

The 12 boys and their soccer coach who were rescued from a flooded cave arrive for a news conference in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

By Amy Sawitta Lefevre

CHIANG RAI, Thailand (Reuters) – The 12 boys and their soccer coach rescued from a flooded cave in Thailand recounted details of their ordeal on Wednesday, at their first public appearance, during which they waved, smiled and offered traditional “wai” greetings on a national broadcast.

Doctors, relatives and friends, some in yellow traditional garb, greeted the boys, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach, who wore T-shirts emblazoned with a red graphic of a wild boar and carried in footballs they kicked gently on the set.

“Bringing the Wild Boars Home,” read a banner in Thai that used the name of the soccer team to welcome them on the set, designed to resemble a soccer field, complete with goalposts and nets.

Coach Ekapol Chantawong introduces himself during the news conference in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Coach Ekapol Chantawong introduces himself during the news conference in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

A crowd of media and onlookers was penned behind barricades as the boys arrived in vans from the hospital where they had stayed since last week’s international effort to extricate them from a flooded cave complex in which they had been trapped.

“I told everyone fight on, don’t despair,” said one boy, describing how the group had battled to stay alive during the excruciating days spent in the cave in Thailand’s northern province of Chiang Rai.

Another, Adul Sam-on, 14, recalled the moment when two British divers found the group on July 2, squatting in a flooded chamber several kilometers within the cave complex.

“It was magical,” he said. “I had to think a lot before I could answer their questions.”

That discovery triggered the rescue effort that brought them all to safety over the course of three days, organized by Thai navy SEALs and a global team of cave-diving experts.

The order in which the boys eventually left the cave did not depend on the state of their health, said their coach Ekkapol Chantawong, whose efforts have been credited by some parents with keeping the boys alive.

“The ones whose homes are the furthest went first, so they could tell everyone that the boys were fine,” he added.

The 12 soccer players and their coach react as they explain their experience in the cave during their news conference in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

The 12 soccer players and their coach react as they explain their experience in the cave during their news conference in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 18, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

“WE ONLY DRANK WATER”

The group had planned to explore the Tham Luang cave complex for about an hour after soccer practice on June 23. But a rainy season downpour flooded the tunnels, trapping them.

“We took turns digging at the cave walls,” Ekkapol said. “We didn’t want to wait around until authorities found us.”

One of the boys added, “We used stones to dig in the cave. We dug 3 to 4 meters.” That represents a depth of 3.3 to 4.4 yards.

But their efforts were to no avail, Ekkapol said, adding, “Almost everyone can swim. Some aren’t strong swimmers, however.”

The group, which had eaten before going into the caves, took no food on an excursion that had been intended to last only an hour, and had to subsist on water dripping from stalactites in the cave, he added.

“We only drank water,” said one of the boys, nicknamed Tee. “On the first day we were OK, but after two days we started feeling tired.”

The team’s youngest member, who goes by the name Titan, added, “I had no strength. I tried not to think about food so I didn’t get more hungry.”

Thoughts of their parents also preoccupied the boys, with one admitting, “I was afraid. That I wouldn’t go home and I would get scolded by my mother.”

The boys, who return home on Wednesday night, all apologized for being naughty, admitting to having told their parents only that they were going to soccer practice, but not about the plans to go into the cave.

The boys, who sported crisp haircuts, had gained 3 kg (6.6 lb) each on average since the rescue, and ran through confidence-building exercises ahead of Wednesday’s event, said hospital director Chaiwetch Thanapaisal.

The rescue effort drew global media attention and hundreds of journalists. Excitement picked up again in the usually sleepy town of Chiang Rai ahead of the much-anticipated 90-minute live broadcast on dozens of channels.

“We don’t know what wounds the kids are carrying in their hearts,” said justice¬†ministry official Tawatchai Thaikaew, who asked for the boys’ privacy to be respected after the discharge, for fear the media attention could affect their mental health.

But the moment was bittersweet, as two of the boys held up a framed pencil sketch of Samarn Kunan, 38, the former Thai navy diver who died while he worked underwater, laying oxygen tanks along a potential exit route.

“Everyone was very sad,” said the coach, Ekkapol, adding that the boys would spend time as novice Buddhist monks to honor the diver’s memory. “They felt like they were the reason he had to die and his family had to suffer.”

(Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak, Vorasit Satienlerk, Chayut Setboonsarng, Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panarat Thepgumpanat in BANGKOK; Writing by Clarence Fernandez; Editing by Darren Schuettler)

‘Miracle or science?’: Thai soccer team saved from flooded cave

An ambulance leaves from Tham Luang cave complex in the northern province of Chiang Rai, July 9, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

By John Geddie and Panu Wongcha-um

CHIANG RAI, Thailand (Reuters) – Rescuers freed the last four of 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach from deep inside a flooded cave on Tuesday, a successful end to an extraordinarily perilous mission that gripped the world for more than two weeks.

A stretcher which is believed to be carrying a boy rescued from the Tham Luang cave is moved from an ambulance in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, in this photo taken by Kyodo July 9, 2018. Picture taken July 9, 2018. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

A stretcher which is believed to be carrying a boy rescued from the Tham Luang cave is moved from an ambulance in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, in this photo taken by Kyodo July 9, 2018. Picture taken July 9, 2018. Mandatory credit Kyodo/via REUTERS

The “Wild Boars” soccer team, aged between 11 and 16, and their 25-year-old coach became trapped on June 23 while exploring the cave complex in the northern province of Chiang Rai when a rainy season downpour flooded the tunnels.

“We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what. All the thirteen Wild Boars are now out of the cave,” the Navy SEAL unit, which led the rescue, said on its Facebook page, adding all were safe.

British divers found the 13, hungry and huddled in darkness on a muddy bank in a partly flooded chamber several kilometers inside the Tham Luang cave complex, on Monday last week.

After pondering for days how to get the 13 out, a rescue operation was launched on Sunday when four of the boys were brought out, tethered to rescue divers.

Another four were rescued on Monday and the last four boys and the coach were brought out on Tuesday, prompting rounds of spontaneous applause as ambulances and helicopters passed.

Volunteers celebrate near Tham Luang cave complex, July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Volunteers celebrate near Tham Luang cave complex, July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Celebrations were tinged with sadness over the loss of a former Thai navy diver who died on Friday while on a re-supply mission inside the cave.

“I want to tell the coach thank you so much for helping the boys survive this long,” said one Chiang Rai woman wearing a traditional dress, tears brimming in her eyes.

“I remember all of their faces, especially the youngest one. He’s the smallest one and he doesn’t have as much experience as the others… I felt like he was one of my own children and I wanted him to come home.”

The last five were brought out of the cave on stretchers, one by one over the course of Tuesday, and taken by helicopter to hospital.

Three members of the SEAL unit and an army doctor, who has stayed with the boys since they were found, were the last people due to come out of the cave, the unit said.

Officials did not comment on the rescue mission as it took place, so details of the final day of the rescue and the condition of the last five to be brought out were not immediately known.

Rescued schoolboys are moved from a military helicopter to an awaiting ambulance at a military airport in Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 9, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Rescued schoolboys are moved from a military helicopter to an awaiting ambulance at a military airport in Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 9, 2018. REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

The eight boys brought out on Sunday and Monday were in good health overall and some asked for chocolate bread for breakfast, officials said earlier.

Two of the boys had suspected lung infections but the four boys from the first group rescued were all walking around in hospital.

Volunteers from as far away as Australia and the United States helped with the effort to rescue the boys. U.S. military personnel also helped.

U.S. President Donald Trump hailed the rescue.

“On behalf of the United States, congratulations to the Thai Navy SEALs and all on the successful rescue of the 12 boys and their coach from the treacherous cave in Thailand,” Trump said on Twitter.

“Such a beautiful moment – all freed, great job!”

Authorities did not reveal the identity of the boys as they were brought out, one by one. Parents of the four boys rescued on Sunday were allowed to see them through a glass window at the hospital, public health officials said on Tuesday, but they will be quarantined for the time being.

The boys were still being quarantined from their parents because of the risk of infection and would likely be kept in hospital for a week for tests, officials said earlier.

(For an interactive graphic “Hope for the 13 trapped in Thai cave”, click https://tmsnrt.rs/2KR2zRj)

(Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um, Juarawee Kittisilpa, Patpicha Tanakasempipat, John Geddie and James Pomfret in CHIANG RAI, and Aukkarapon Niyomyat, Panarat Thepgumpanat, Amy Sawitta Lefevre and Chayut Setboonsarng in BANGKOK; Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

Eight boys brought out of Thai cave by late on day two of rescue

Medics wait in one of nine ambulances stationed outside the Tham Luang cave mouth, where boys are trapped in a flooded cave, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 9, 2018. REUTERS/James Pomfret

By Panu Wongcha-um and James Pomfret

CHIANG RAI, Thailand (Reuters) – Rescue workers in Thailand on Monday brought four boys out of a flooded cave where a 12-member soccer squad and their coach were trapped for more than two weeks, taking the total number rescued to eight.

A Reuters witness near the Tham Luang cave in the northern province of Chiang Rai saw medical personnel carrying four people out of the cave to waiting ambulances over the course of the day.

The rescue operation was launched on Sunday and four boys were brought out that day. They were in good condition in hospital, officials said.

“As of now, eight people have left the cave,” an official involved in the rescue operation told Reuters. The official declined to be identified as he is not authorized to speak to the media.

The Thai navy SEAL unit, which has been overseeing the rescue, later confirmed on its Facebook page that the total number of boys brought out was eight.

The “Wild Boars” soccer team and their coach got trapped on June 23 when they set out to explore the vast cave complex after soccer practice, when a rainy season downpour flooded the tunnels.

British divers found the 13, huddled on a muddy bank in a partly flooded chamber several kilometers inside the complex, on Monday last week.

An ambulance leaves from Tham Luang cave complex in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 9, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

An ambulance leaves from Tham Luang cave complex in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 9, 2018. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

The dangerous bid to rescue the boys – aged between 11 and 16 – got going again hours earlier on Monday after a break to replenish oxygen supplies and make other preparations deep inside the cave complex.

Authorities have said the mission could take three or four days to complete. It is a race against the clock with heavy rain expected in coming days, which would again dangerously flood the tunnels with fast flowing, and rising, water.

The rescue team went into the cave to resume the operation at 11 a.m. (0400 GMT), the chief of the rescue mission, Narongsak Osottanakorn, told a news conference earlier, adding he expected good news.

Thirteen foreign divers and five members of Thailand’s elite navy SEAL unit make up the main team guiding the boys to safety through narrow, submerged passageways that claimed the life of a former Thai navy diver on Friday.

Narongsak said that the “same multinational team” that went into the cave on Sunday to retrieve the first four boys was deployed on Monday.

He did not say how many boys the team hoped to bring out on Monday.

Narongsak Osottanakorn, former governor of Chiang Rai province and the head of the rescue mission, attends a news conference after resuming the mission to rescue a group of boys and their soccer coach trapped in a flooded cave, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 9, 2018. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Narongsak Osottanakorn, former governor of Chiang Rai province and the head of the rescue mission, attends a news conference after resuming the mission to rescue a group of boys and their soccer coach trapped in a flooded cave, in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 9, 2018. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

GOOD HEALTH

On Sunday, divers held the first four boys close to bring them out, and each had to wear an oxygen mask to enable normal breathing, authorities said.

Narongsak said rescuers had to tighten a guide rope as part of their preparations for the second phase of the rescue on Monday.

Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda told reporters the four boys rescued on Sunday were in good health in hospital but did not give details. There was no word on the condition of any of the people brought out on Monday.

Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha went to the cave to inspect the rescue operation later on Monday, with navy rescuers giving him a rousing cheer.

The fate of the boys and their coach has gripped Thailand and drawn attention from around the world.

Authorities have not confirmed the identity of the first four boys rescued. Some of the boys’ parents told Reuters they had not been told who had been rescued and that they were not allowed to visit the hospital.

Narongsak said the rescued boys had not been identified out of respect for the families whose sons were still trapped, adding that the boys were being kept away from their parents due to fear of infection.

“The four children are well at Chiang Rai Prachanukroh hospital. But they still need to be kept away from their parents and others due to fear about infection,” he said.

Medical teams previously said concerns included hypothermia and an airborne lung infection known as “cave disease”, which is caused by bat and bird droppings.

Somboon Sompiangjai, 38, the father of one of the trapped boys, said parents were told by rescuers ahead of Sunday’s operation the “strongest children” would be brought out first.

“We have not been told which child has been brought out … We can’t visit our boys in hospital because they need to be monitored for 48 hours,” Somboon told Reuters.

“I’m hoping for good news,” he said.

The cave complex is off-limits during the rainy season, which usually runs from May to October, when downpours can quickly flood it.

Relatives said the boys had been inside the labyrinthine complex during the dry season.

The president of soccer’s governing body, FIFA, has invited the boys to the World Cup final in Moscow on Sunday if they make it out in time.

 

(Reporting by Panu Wongcha-um, Patpicha Tanakasempipat, John Geddie and James Pomfret in CHIANG RAI; Additional reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Panarat Thepgumpanat, Pracha Hariraksapitak, and Aukkarapon Niyomyat in BANGKOK; Writing by John Geddie; Editing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre, Robert Birsel)