Twelve boys and their football coach who survived a highly dangerous and dramatic rescue from a flooded Thai cave spoke publicly of their incredible ordeal for the first time on Wednesday at a press conference that was beamed around the world.
The “Wild Boars” team members looked healthy and happy as they answered questions about the nine days they spent in the dark before being discovered by members of an international rescue team.
A packed crowd greeted the youngsters after they were discharged from hospital in Chiang Rai, and watched as they played with footballs on a small makeshift pitch before taking their seats.
“It is a miracle,” Wild Boars footballer Adul Sam-on, 14, said of the rescue, as the boys were gently quizzed about their terrifying experience.
Doctors said despite their ordeal, all 13 were in good physical and mental health after recuperating in hospital.
Their release from hospital was bittersweet, though.
At the press conference, 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 out of the cave complex.
“Everyone was very sad,” said the coach, Ekkapol. “They felt like they were the reason he had to die and his family had to suffer.”
“I told everyone fight on, don’t despair,” said one of the boys, recounting how they battled during the excruciating days spent in the cave.
Another, Adul Sam-on, 14, recalled the moment when two British divers found the group on July 2, squatting in a flooded chamber several kilometres 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, organised by Thai navy SEALs and a global team of cave-diving experts.
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.
The group, which had eaten before going into the caves, took no food on the excursion, and had to subsist on water dripping from stalactites in the cave during their ordeal, he added.
“We only drank water,” said one of the boys, nicknamed Tee.
The team’s youngest member, Titan, added, “I had no strength. I tried not to think about food so I didn’t get more hungry.”
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Wednesday’s briefing was tightly controlled, with experts warning of possible long-term distress from the more than two weeks they spent trapped inside the flooded chamber of the cave.
The public relations department in Chiang Rai solicited questions from news outlets in advance, which were forwarded to psychiatrists for screening.
Thailand’s junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha urged media Wednesday to be “cautious in asking unimportant questions” that could cause unspecified damage.
Interest in the saga has been intense, with film production houses already eyeing a Hollywood treatment of the drama.
Doctors have advised families of the players, aged 11 to 16, that they should avoid letting them contact journalists for at least one month.
The discovery and rescue
The team was found emaciated and huddled in a group on a muddy ledge by British divers several kilometres inside Tham Luang.
Rescuers debated on the best plan to bring them out but ultimately decided on a risky operation that involved diving them through waterlogged passages while they were sedated to keep them calm and carrying them out in military-grade stretchers.
Not even the foreign cave diving specialists who took part were sure the mission would work and many expressed relief when it was all over after the final five were rescued on July 10.
‘Happiest day of my life’
Families of the youngsters have eagerly awaited their homecoming.
Khameuy Promthep, the grandmother of 13-year-old Dom, one of the boys rescued from the cave, told AFP in an interview at their family shop in Mae Sai near the Myanmar border on Wednesday that she was very excited.
“This is the happiest day of my life,” she said.