Thai cave rescue: Birthday snacks likely helped sustain footballers during first days of ordeal

PHOTO: Reuters

MAE SAI, THAILAND - In order to celebrate a teammate's 16th birthday, 12 boys of a football team chipped in to buy snacks to take down to a cave in a remote area in northern Thailand.

It was probably those snacks that helped keep them alive after heavy rains flooded the Tham Luang cave, trapping them and their assistant coach underground for more than a week.

The boys, aged between 11 and 16, were found late Monday (July 2) huddled in the dark on a muddy bank, flood waters ominously beneath them.

It was meant to be very different, says the sister of one of the footballers, Pheeraphat Sompiengjai, who goes by the nickname "Night". He joined the football team "Wild Boars" about a year ago and played in goal.

His family had prepared a birthday cake, grilled pork and dessert as birthday treats for Pheeraphat on June 23.

"We prepared dinner to celebrate and some relatives came to join," said the sister Phunphatsa.

"The cake is in the fridge. I kept it there to surprise him."

As the hours passed they knew something was wrong.

"He never missed any time he was supposed to be home," his sister told AFP.

All 13 members of Thai junior football team found in flooded cave

  • Parents of the boys trapped in the Chiang Rai cave shed tears of joy and relief on Wednesday morning as they watched a video of them being treated for minor injuries.
  • The Royal Thai Navy SEALS shot the video and posted it on their “ThaiSEAL” Facebook page, showing the 12 boys noticeably thinner and looking exhausted.
  • But the boys swaddled in silvery blankets proclaim themselves in good health in the clip.
  • Their parents watched the video while they were waiting to talk to the boys via a specially rigged phone system.
  • They reaffirmed their love for the children and said they were forgiven for going astray, since none of them could have expected the June 23 cave excursion would turn into a nail-biting 10-day drama, with no clear end yet in sight.
  • Attention has now turned to how to get the group back out through several kilometers of dangerously flooded tunnels.
  • The navy has raised the possibility that the 13 could be in the Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai province until the flood waters recede, at the end of the rainy season in four months.
  • But others say the boys could be out in a matter of days if the weather is on their side and water can be pumped out of the cave complex, and if they can be taught to use scuba gear.
  • Kobchai Boonarana, deputy director-general of the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation department, said it was up to the rescue team in the cave to decide whether and when the boys would be strong enough to tackle the journey out.
  • “We miss them and want to see them get out very soon,” one parent said as the video played. “They look thinner, but we’re happy they’re safe.”
  • Rescuers found all 12 boys and their football coach alive inside the flooded Tham Luang Cave Monday night.
  • The 13 victims from a local football club, Mu Pa Academy Mae Sai, have been stranded inside the cave in Chiang Rai province because of flash floods since June 23.
  • The group, mostly seated and with baggy football shirts pulled over their knees and illuminated by torchlight, asked for food and to leave the cave immediately, according to the video taken late Monday and shared on the official Facebook page of the Thai Navy SEALS.
  • The group appeared exhausted, rake thin, sensitive to the light but lucid, with some speaking faltering English to try to communicate with the unidentified diver.
  • Family members celebrate while camping out near Than Luang cave following news all members of children's football team and their coach were alive in the cave at Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park in the Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province late July 2, 2018.
  • The Chiang Rai governor praised and gave credits to two British cave diving experts who found the missing team. He did not mention the names but it is understood to be John Volanthen and Richard Stanton (pic, in blue).
  • Three British cave-divers, Richard William Stanton (L), John Volanthen (2nd-L) and Robert Charles Harper (3rd-L) arrive at Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park near the Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai on June 27, 2018
  • 12 boys, aged between 11 and 16, and their 25-year old assistant football coach went missing on Saturday after they decided to explore the Tham Luang cave complex in Chiang Rai province,
  • despite a sign warning visitors that the maze of passages and chambers was prone to flooding.
  • Bicycles and football shoes belonging to the boys were found near the entrance, and rescue workers think handprints inside the cave could have been left by the group.
  • But the search has so far yielded no other trace.
  • The race to find the boys has gripped the Southeast Asian nation
  • International rescue teams, including one sent by the United States Pacific Command (PACOM),
  • are assisting the Thai army, navy and police in a search operation that has been hampered by heavy rain.
  • Plans to drill into the mountainside overnight to drain water from inside the vast cave complex have been partially successful.
  • The 10-kilometre cave is one of Thailand's longest. Visitors are usually only allowed up to 800 meters inside the cave, which has a reputation for being difficult to navigate.
  • Exhausted family members have been keeping vigil near the cave as they await news about their loved ones.
  • Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha visited the site, offering encouragement to rescuers and comfort to relatives.
  • "Whatever can be done, do it, the government will back it," said Prayuth.
  • "They're athletes. They're strong," he told the boys' relatives in an attempt to comfort them.

Instead of heading straight home after football practice, the teenager joined his 11 teammates and their 25-year-old coach to walk into the Tham Luang cave.

The boys chipped in to buy snacks to take down to the cave to mark his birthday, relatives at Night's village of Vieng Hom said on Wednesday (July 4).

They speculated it was those snacks that sustained them during their ordeal.

Their village, abutted by rice fields and framed by northern Thailand's dramatic mountains, is also home to three of the other boys trapped in the cave.

Night's sister said her brother and the three boys from the same village would gather at their house nearly every day before going out to play.

It may be days, weeks or even months before they can resume their normal routines.

"I feel it's a long time (to wait)... but it's okay if it makes him safe," Phunphatsa said, adding that without him, "the house is quiet".

The group still languish inside the cave's 10 kilometre-long passages, with floods blocking their exit, but are now under the care of Thai navy divers and medics.

Local media reported that the trapped footballers have been given their first meal of grilled pork and sticky rice, accompanied with milk.

The distress was eased a little on Wednesday, when a fresh video released by the navy showed the team smiling and looking markedly healthier than when they were found two days ago.

"He said: 'Hello, I am Night. I'm fine.'" Night's mother Supaluk told AFP.

"It's very good to see he is safe. I know he will be okay."