Thai soccer team released from hospital, describes rescue from flooded cave

Members of a Thai youth soccer team and their coach have described their rescue from a flooded cave as a miracle, thanked the experts who saved them and discussed how the experience will affect the rest of their lives.

In their first public remarks since emerging from their two-week ordeal last week, the boys recounted their side of an extraordinary story that captured the imagination of the world.

Dressed in matching team shirts, the boys and their coach appeared happy and relaxed as they faced the world’s media after being discharged from the hospital in Chiang Rai on Wednesday.

The boys, all members of the Wild Boars junior soccer team, introduced themselves to the media, shared their nicknames and told the audience what position they played on the team.

Sitting beside the boys were the Thai Navy SEALs who stayed inside the cave with them after they were found, as well as members of the medical team who looked after them after the rescue. In a carefully arranged press conference, for which questions were pre-screened, the boys told of the moment they realized they were trapped, how they adapted to their surroundings and their eventual joy at being found, ten days later.

Authorities said that more than 100 questions were sent in from members of the media, though only a handful were selected. All 12 players and their coach had been under close supervision at Chiang Rai Prachanukroh hospital, near the border with Myanmar, since they were rescued from the cave on July 10.

Why go in?

Until Wednesday, the question of why the boys and their coach had decided to go into the Tham Luang cave on June 23 has been a point of speculation. It had been suggested the boys had been engaged in an initiation rite, or had been celebrating a team-member’s birthday.

In fact, 25-year-old coach Ekapol Chantawong explained, the boys were merely curious to look inside as some of them had never visited it before. The coach, whose nickname is Ake, said it was not unusual for the group to participate in group activities after soccer practice on Saturday afternoons.

They explored the underground tunnels for about an hour, before deciding to turn back. But by this time the cave had become partially flooded and their exit was blocked. “Someone said are we lost?” said Ake, who reassured the group that help would come.

At his point, the realization dawned that they were trapped. With the entrance flooded and no obvious way out, the group retreated further into the cave to find somewhere to to rest for the night. “We moved further in for about 200 meters,” Ake said. “There we found a bit of slope and there was a small water source inside the cave.” Ake knew that the water dripping from the roof of the cave would be purer than the dirty floodwater on the floor. “I told them it’s better to be near a water source,” Ake said.

“Before we slept, I told them, ‘Let’s say a prayer.’ So we said a prayer that night.”

The team were not scared, Ake told the enraptured audience, explaining that he hoped the water level would drop the next day, and that help would arrive.

Waters rising

The waters did not subside, however. Instead, Ake described the moment that he heard the sound of flowing water — and saw the levels rising fast. In response, he ordered the group to find higher ground. Concerned that they might soon be submerged, he instructed the boys to start digging and look for a potential exit.

Having eaten after soccer practice, the boys had no food during their ordeal. Instead, they filled themselves with water from the cave. “I tried not to think about food because it would make me hungry,” said the youngest of the boys, 11-year-old Chanin “Titan” Wibrunrungrueang.

The moment they were found

Adun Sam-On, the 14-year-old boy who became famous after responding in English to the first diver to reach the group, spoke of his shock on realizing they had been discovered.

Adun, like other members of the group, was busy digging — looking for a possible way out — when some of the boys thought they heard the sound of people talking.

Coach Ake told the group to stay quiet. He asked one of the boys to move closer to the ledge and shine a flashlight on the water, but the boy was too scared, said Adun, who volunteered instead.

When the British divers breached the surface, Adun said he was so shocked, all he could think to say was “hello!”

“I thought this was really a miracle. I didn’t know how to respond,” Adun said.

The boys described how they formed a bond with the Thai Navy SEALs who remained with them in the cave while rescuers worked out a plan to free them. Titan described how they played checkers — and that one of the Navy SEALs sitting alongside them at the press conference always won. “He was king of the cave,” Titan said.

When the decision was made to extract the boys through the floodwaters, coach Ake joked he and the boys made the decision on who should go first based on who lived the furthest away. Ake thought the rescued kids would go straight home and those who got out first could spread the word, not realizing the global media had descended on the cave.

Lessons learned

When asked about the lessons they’ve learned from the incident, Ake said he was going to live life more carefully.

Ardun said though people can’t predict the future, the experience had taught him about the consequences of acting carelessly.

Other boys said though they still dreamed of becoming soccer players, some said they now wanted to become Navy SEALs.

Many of the boys apologized to their parents for not telling them they went to the cave.

Now that the boys’ ordeal is over, there are concerns over their long-term psychological health. “We don’t know what wounds the kids are carrying in their hearts,” said Tawatchai Thaikaew, an official at the Thai justice ministry. He urged the media to respect the boys’ privacy in the future, out of concern for their health, Reuters said.

Some of the boys are stateless, and the process of granting them Thai citizenship is under way, officials confirmed.

The largely joyous mood of the press conference was tempered, however, when the boys and their coach discussed the loss of Saman Kunan, the former Thai Navy SEAL who had died during the rescue effort. Coach Ake said the team were shocked to learn of Saman Kunan’s death, called him a hero and said he had sacrificed his life for theirs.

In memory of the navy diver, Ake said the boys would spend time as novice Buddhist monks — a practice considered a high honor in Thailand.