Members of a youth soccer team on Wednesday recounted their harrowing, two-week ordeal in a flooded Thai cave and the “magical” moment when rescuers emerged from the murky waters and assured them help was on the way.
The 12 boys and their coach ultimately were freed in an intricate, three-day international mission that ended more than a week ago. They appeared Wednesday at a news conference televised across that nation of 70 million people who have been transfixed by the team’s tale.
The “Wild Boars” hugged friends and kicked a ball around on a miniature, makeshift soccer field. Doctors said they had gained an average of more than six pounds each and were in good health – physically and mentally.
One player recalled being startled when the first rescue diver arrived on the tenth day of the odyssey.
“It was magical,” said Adul Sam-on, 14, in comments translated by Reuters. “I had to think a lot before I could answer their questions.”
The boys, ages 11-17, and coach Ekapol Chantawong, 25, went into the Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand on June 23, planning to explore for about an hour, the coach said. They had just finished a practice game and were taking part in a team-building exercise.
The boys initially hiked in but later waded through water. Heavy rains soon sent a wall of water rushing into the cave, flooding sections and blocking their exit. They were trapped more than two miles from freedom.
Ekapol said the group had eaten before entering the cave, but had no food with them. They drank fresh water dripping from the cave walls. They meditated to stay calm and preserve energy, he said. And they tried to save themselves.
“We took turns digging at the cave walls,” Ekapol said. “We didn’t want to wait around until authorities found us.”
The team’s youngest member, Titan, said he “had no strength. I tried not to think about food so I didn’t get more hungry.”
Divers found them nine days later, huddled and hungry but in fairly good health. But it took another week to design a plan to extricate the boys. A team of more than 100 rescuers from a dozen countries finally rescued them, but not before a former Thai navy diver passed out and died from lack of oxygen while helping set up the escape route.
An army doctor, who stayed in the cave with the team from when they were found until they were rescued, said the team had managed to dig a 16-foot hole in their efforts to burrow to freedom. Lieutenant Colonel Pak Loharachun, in a Facebook post, also lodded Ekapol for putting the boys’ well-being before his own.
“I saw from the first day that Ek waited for the boys to satisfy their hunger first. He gave his meal to the young,” he said in the post.
Wednesday’s news conference was tightly controlled by Thai officials. Media questions were screened and provided to the team. Justice ministry official Tawatchai Thaikaew said while the boys seemed fine emotionally, it was too early to tell whether issues might crop up.
He also asked the media and others to respect the privacy of the boys and their families.
Banphot Konkum, the ecstatic uncle who has raised 13-year-old Duangpetch Promthep, told the Associated Press the boy will be going home to a renovated bedroom and plenty of gifts.
“We’ll do whatever he wants,” Banphot said. “If he wants anything we’ll buy it for him as a present as we promised. … Whatever he wants we’ll do it for him.”