'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

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    During a national TV broadcast they smiled, joked and showed solidarity with one another, as they shared details of their traumatic experience inside the flooded Tham Luang cave complex.

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    During their TV news conference, the boys said when they entered the cave on June 23 they had planned to only be inside the cave for about an hour after football practice.

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    But a rainy season downpour flooded the tunnels, trapping them.

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    The boys had no food and survived only on water. They took turns digging at the cave walls, hoping to find a way out.

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    "This experience made me stronger and taught me not to give up," said the team's youngest member, who goes by the name Titan.

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    The boys will eventually spend time as novice Buddhist monks to honour the dead diver's memory, their coach said on Wednesday.

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    The Chiangrai Prachanukroh Hospital on Saturday released a video clip on its Facebook page showing the 12 Mu Pa (Wild Boar) Academy footballers and their coach thanking everyone for their concern and help in rescuing them. Chanin Wibulrungruang (Titan), 11, said his condition was returning to normal and he would like to eat sushi. He thanked the Navy SEALs for rescuing him and thanked everyone for all the moral support.

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    They also conveyed that they were in good health and looked forward to tasting their favourite foods. The 12 youths and the coach were seen in a row of beds in the three-minute clip.

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    Pipat Phothi (Nik), 15, said he felt in good health. He said he would like to eat rice with crisp fried pork, and rice with stew red pork. He thanked the rescuers and everyone for the moral support.

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    Piraphat Sompiangchai (Night), 16, said he felt in good health and he would like to eat pork pan chabu very much. He thanked everyone for all the moral support.

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    Adul Sam-on (Dul), 14, said his condition had improved and he would like to go to a KFC shop. He said he was now killing time by drawing pictures of his friends and Coach Ek in the cave.

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    He also said in English: “I’m Adul. I’m very fine. Thank you for helping us. Thank you very much.”

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    Ekkapol Chanthawong, 25, or Coach Ek, said he his condition was improving and he now felt strong. He would like to eat fried rice with crisp pork. He said he would like to thank all the people and all the ministries and Navy SEALs as well as the doctors for helping the team.

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    Pornchai Khamluang (Tee), 16, said he would like to eat fried rice with crisp pork and would like to thank everyone for all the moral support.

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    Sompong Jaiwong (Pong), 13, said he was strong now. He would like to eat curry basil rice with fried egg. He thanked everyone for all the moral support and thanked the international community for helping the team. “Thank you,” he said in English.

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    Mongkol Boonpiam (Mark), 13, said he was now strong and could even run. He would like to eat a piece of steak. He thanked everyone for all the moral support and promised to fight on

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    This handout video grab taken from footage released by The Thai government public relations department (PRD) and Government spokesman bureau on July 11, 2018 shows members of the "Wild Boars" football team being treated at a hospital in Chiang Rai.

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    The 12 boys rescued from a Thai cave were passed "sleeping" on stretchers through the treacherous passageways, a former Thai Navy SEAL told AFP on July 11, giving the first clear details of an astonishing rescue mission that has captivated the world.

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    Doctors have said they are in good physical and mental health -- a view backed up by the footage made available by the Thai government showing them behind quarantine glass in bed wearing smocks and facemasks, flashing peace signs and doing the traditional "wai" greeting.

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    They do not look shell-shocked or stunned despite a potentially harrowing 18 days inside a dank, dark cave followed by a risky rescue operation that was dubbed "Mission Impossible".

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    A screen grab shows people looking through glass at the boys

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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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