BANGKOK - Twelve boys and their football coach rescued from a flooded cave in Thailand planned to explore the cavern complex for only about an hour before treacherous flood waters rose to trap them for more than two weeks, one of the boys' fathers said.
All 12 of the boys and their 25-year-old coach were brought to safety over the course of a three-day rescue, organised by Thai navy SEALs and an international team of diving and caving experts, that ended on Tuesday.
They had gone into the Tham Luang cave in the northern province of Chiang Rai on June 23, for a quick excursion after football practice, when a rainy season downpour flooded the tunnels.
"He told me that as soon as they finished practice they went to play at the cave. They thought they'd only be an hour," Banpot Korncam, father of 13-year-old Duangpetch or Dom Promthep, 13, told media. Dom is the captain of the "Wild Boars" team.
"While they were inside the cave it rained, water flowed in and everyone took off," Banpot said.
Two British divers found the boys on July 2, squatting on a muddy mound in a flooded chamber several kilometres inside the complex, nine days after they went for their quick jaunt.
Dom said that the group was staying on higher ground when the British divers discovered them. They ran down to ask for help when they saw the divers. The discovery was recorded by the divers’ helmet camera, footage that brought joy to their parents and a worldwide audience.
Then the problem became how to get them back out through the tunnels, some completely full of fast-flowing flood water.
The boys, aged 11 to 16, had to dive for part of their journey out before they were put on green plastic toboggan-like stretchers and carried, at times through steep, rocky tunnels, with ropes strung overhead.
Many people in Thailand have credited the coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, or Ek as he is known, for keeping the boys safe during the ordeal.
"They just sat quietly without doing anything because it was dark," said Banpot, recounting what Dom, who is still in hospital, had told him.
"When they were hungry Coach Ek would use a flashlight to shine on the stalactites above," he said.
Chanin, nicknamed Titan, is the youngest of the 13 Mu Pa (Wild Boar) team members who were trapped inside the cave after a flash flood hit the area and the cave, blocking their exit.
Chanin was speaking to his mother through a glass partition at Chiangrai Prachanukroh Hospital where the group was undergoing a medical check-up. “While we were in the cave, there was heavy rain that resulted in fast and heavy flow of water,” he told his mother.
“Coach Ek [Ekkapon] told the boys to build a wall to block the water but to no avail because the water ran very strong and fast. This forced us to retreat deeper into the cave,” Chanin was quoted as saying.
In a separate interview with Thai media, Dom echoed Chanin’s account, saying that he joined the others on the trip because it was to be a short visit.
Chanin told his mother that on the first three nights, he was so hungry that he burst into tears. He only consumed rainwater that seeped into the cave through the roof of the cave. “It was really cold inside the cave. He told Ekkapon that, so he hugged my boy until he slept,” according to his mother, Aikan.
It was difficult for the team to sleep on the ledge where they were stranded as it was so small, she said.
Chanin also said that Ekkapon told them not to move a lot to save their energy and meditate to stay calm and not panic.
The group survived by drinking water that dripped off the stalactites and the cave walls, rescue officials said.
Initially isolated in hospital in Chiang Rai because of fears of infection, the boys have now been allowed to meet their families. They will stay in hospital at least a week.
"The boys' health is improving ... relatives can now visit them in close proximity," said Thongchai Lertwilairatanapong, a health ministry inspector.
The rescue gripped the world, with much praise focusing on the navy SEALs and international team of divers who helped them, toiling for days in dangerous conditions to get the boys out. A former Thai navy SEAL diver died during the mission.
John Volanthen, one of the two British divers who found the boys, played down the gallantry.
"We're not heroes," he told the BBC after arriving back in London.
"What we do is very calculating. It's very calm, it's quite the opposite ... But it's really the international team I would like to focus on and the Thai SEALs."
Volanthen was the first person the boys heard after nine days trapped in the flooded cave. A video posted by the Thai SEALs captured the moment.
"How many of you?" he asked, a torch beam scanning the boys crowded on the bank.
Banphot said his son lost about three to four kilograms during the ordeal and he asked for pork barbecue, Thai-styled noodle soup and a new phone to replace the old one he lost in the cave.
Aikan said she prepared sticky rice and grilled pork which are her son’s favourite food when he leaves the hospital.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said on Thursday international members of the rescue team would be given a "Thailand Elite" card worth 500,000 baht ($15,000) with benefits including a 5-year visa in thanks.