Thai cave rescue: Many worry that coach may blame himself for ordeal

Ekkapon Chantawongse
PHOTO: The Nation/Asia News Network

The assistant coach of Mu Pa Academy, Ekkapon Chantawongse, 25, is the eldest of the 13 footballers who have been trapped in the Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai since June 23.

The team members were found safe after spending 10 days in the heavily flooded cave after marathon rescue efforts. Authorities are still considering the best and safest way to rescue them.

Some netizens blamed “Coach Ek”, saying he has to take responsible for the incident as he was the eldest of the group who should have prevented the group from entering the cave. He took the boys inside the cave despite there being a warning sign in front of the entrance. 

However, some netizens argued that it was the sudden flash floods that had led to the group getting trapped, forcing them to retreat deeper into the cave.

The warning sign in front of the cave cautioned visitors against entering the cave during the rainy season from July to November. The team went in on June 23. It was not their first visit.

Despite differences of opinion, most people now see the coach as the main reason why the boys survived the ordeal. 

It has been revealed that he advised the boys to use flashlights one at a time to make sure they had a light source for as long as possible.

He taught them to drink clean water that seeped through the roof of the cave, not the floodwater, after they had run out of drinking water. He also told the boys not to move a lot, and asked them to meditate to save as much energy as possible.

These were experiences he had reportedly gained during his monkhood when he stayed in caves.

There is concern that Ekkapon may experience severe guilt pangs and will blame himself for the ordeal and see himself as the cause of the multinational rescue operation.

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.

During the video clip of the first sighting of the missing boys, Ekkapon apparently hid himself in the back, as he was not seen. The second video clip of the group that shot each member one by one showed him looking considerably weaker when compared with his previous photos.

That has raised concerns that the coach might be suffering from feelings of guilt.

However, the boys’ parents, who are waiting to see their children come out of the cave, told media that they did not blame the coach for the incident.

A mother said, “Coach Ek, you should not blame yourself for what happened. We all know that you are kind and always have the good heart to help our children.”

Another mother said in tears that her boy had survived this ordeal because of the coach. “I was worried that my boy was missing. What comforted me was that coach Ek is with him.”

Thawatchai Thaikhiew, the deputy permanent secretary for Justice, said he was worried that the coach may consider it his fault and may not forgive himself. This could lead to depression.

“I ask all Thai people to send him moral support for our hero coach Ek. If anyone meets him, please tell him that he is the one whom I would love and hug the most,” he said in his Facebook post.

From a video clip shot during the first encounter between British divers and the missing group, people could see the boys’ surprisingly good spirits although they appeared to be exhausted.

Chiang Rai Governor Narongsak Osotanakorn earlier said that the boys were stronger than expected.