'It was a miracle': Boys rescued from Thai cave describe 2-week ordeal

'It was a miracle': Boys rescued from Thai cave describe 2-week ordeal
PHOTO: Reuters

It was meant to be a fun excursion after football practice, but it turned into a life-threatening, two-week ordeal for a group of youngsters trapped in a cave with rising waters and no apparent escape route.

When coach Ekkapol Chantawong led twelve members of his "Wild Boar" youth football team into the mouth of northern Thailand's Tham Luang cave complex on 23 June, he thought they'd be no more than an hour.

"We didn't have anything with us, no food," he recalled at a press conference on Wednesday where the now world famous team recounted their harrowing ordeal and miraculous escape in their own words for the first time.

One of his pupils had a tutor class to get to later that evening. And besides, Ekkapol thought, the team often explored the complex after practice and knew its meandering tunnels well.

Thailand's wet season was just around the corner -- a period of monsoonal downpours that often floods the cave -- and there were already pools of water inside the mouth.

A sign outside the cave warned against entry during the monsoon. But the kids were keen to have an adventure.

"We were discussing whether we wanted to explore the cave and, if so, how we would have to swim," the 25-year-old coach, a much-loved mentor to the boys, recalled. "It would be wet, it would be cold. Everybody said yes."

The team, aged 11 to 16, left their bikes and football boots near the opening of the cave before one of the boys waded into the water. The rest followed.

But the situation underwent a dramatic change when the boys found themselves at a dead-end. After successfully crossing the first submerged section of the cave, they found the way ahead was also flooded, preventing them from travelling further. At the same time, they could not retreat either, because the floodwater had risen to levels that made it impossible for them to swim back to the cave entrance, he said.

“At that point, we still had hope that the water level would recede and allow us to swim back to the cave entrance. But the following morning, when we found the water level had not subsided, we realised we were trapped,” Ek revealed.

“At that moment, we considered our choices: we could dig our way out through the cave wall, or we should go further to the end of the cave, as some of our team members had heard that there is a secret entrance to the cave from there.”

But they never had a chance to try out the second option, as the water level was too high for them to go further. So the only option before them was to wait for help at Noen Nom Sao, where they were found, he said.

Thai cave rescue: Boys share details of their traumatic experience

Trapped in the dark

Had the heavens not opened, the Wild Boars would have been home by mid-afternoon.

Instead, a sudden deluge forced them deep inside the cave as floodwaters rushed through the entrance and steadily rose up the walls. 

Eventually the team settled on a small muddy ledge some four kilometres inside the cave, figuring all they could do was hope someone would find them.

That fateful decision sparked one of the most remarkable, touch-and-go cave rescue operations in history.

It brought Thai Navy SEALs and international cave diving experts together to pull off the fiendishly difficult task of first locating the missing boys and then extracting them through miles of flooded passageways, as a breathless world looked on.

One former Thai Navy SEAL, Saman Kunan, died when his air ran out during a resupply mission.

Trapped in the dank, pitch-black darkness, the boys had no idea whether anyone was even coming for them -- let alone that they had generated non-stop global headlines.

"I was really afraid that I wouldn't be able to return home," 13-year-old Mongkol Boonpiem, recalled.

ALSO READ: Thailand cave rescue: Boys wake up at home for first time in weeks

Fortunately, they had a fresh water supply.

"We drank water that fell from the rocks," Pornchai Khamluang, the 16-year-old boy who first waded into the water, told reporters. "It was clean and tasted like any drinking water."

Two days into the cave, they started to feel weak and were told by coach Ake to stay still and to use only one flashlight, he said. By the time they were found by the cave divers on July 2, most of them were very weak.

The boys did what they could to keep their spirits up -- coach Ekkapol, who spent some years in a local monastery as a Buddhist monk, taught them how to meditate to keep calm and preserve air.

They had little concept of time but the first time they went to sleep they prayed, Ekkapol said.

'Miracle'

One 11-year-old boy said he was very hungry and tried not to think of food. Another boy said he tried to fill his stomach with water and he would join with others to dig the cave wall with rocks.

It was a futile illustration of their desperation in a cave system buried under hundreds of metres of limestone.

"We used rocks to dig out the cave wall," said Phanumas Saengdee, 13. 

They started this activity 3-4 days after being trapped and by the time they were rescued, they had managed to dig a hole that was about 3-4 metres deep.

Salvation came on day nine in what to the boys seemed like the most unlikely of forms. The team heard voices but the language they were speaking was not Thai.

Two British cave diving experts, who had spent days battling the flooded passages, had finally located the stranded group.

Adul Sam-on, 14, was the only member of the Wild Boars who could speak English. He recounted how Ekkapol heard the sounds of people talking.

Ekkapol told the boys to stop talking and stay quiet so that he could verify the source of the sound. The boys then sat still. Adul said he told another boy, nicknamed Nick, to go down the ledge to examine the sound because Nick had a flashlight.

However, Nick was slow so Adul said he grabbed the flashlight and that was when his eyes fell on the British divers. “They were talking to each other when I saw them. At first I thought they were Thais but when I saw that they were foreigners, I said ‘hello’ to them.”

"When he (the diver) emerged from the water I was shocked that he was British," he recalled. "It was a miracle, I was frightened and I asked him 'Can I help you?'"

In video of the scene that was captured by one of the diver's bodycameras and later broadcast around the world, the bedraggled boys, dressed in mud-caked football kits, could be seen thanking their rescuers.

"Many people are coming. Many, many people," the diver reassured the boys.

They were no longer lost or alone. The rescue mission was on.

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