CHIANG RAI, Thailand (Reuters) – The 12 boys and their soccer coach rescued from a flooded cave in Thailand recounted details of their ordeal on Wednesday, at their first public appearance, during which they waved, smiled and offered traditional “wai” greetings on a national broadcast.
Doctors, relatives and friends, some in yellow traditional garb, greeted the boys, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach, who wore T-shirts emblazoned with a red graphic of a wild boar and carried in footballs they kicked gently on the set.
“Bringing the Wild Boars Home,” read a banner in Thai that used the name of the soccer team to welcome them on the set, designed to resemble a soccer field, complete with goalposts and nets.
A crowd of media and onlookers was penned behind barricades as the boys arrived in vans from the hospital where they had stayed since last week’s international effort to extricate them from a flooded cave complex in which they had been trapped.
“I told everyone fight on, don’t despair,” said one boy, describing how the group had battled to stay alive during the excruciating days spent in the cave in Thailand’s northern province of Chiang Rai.
Another, Adul Sam-on, 14, recalled the moment when two British divers found the group on July 2, squatting in a flooded chamber several kilometers within the cave complex.
“It was magical,” he said. “I had to think a lot before I could answer their questions.”
That discovery triggered the rescue effort that brought them all to safety over the course of three days, organized by Thai navy SEALs and a global team of cave-diving experts.
The order in which the boys eventually left the cave did not depend on the state of their health, said their coach Ekkapol Chantawong, who has been credited by some parents with keeping the boys alive.
“The ones whose homes are the furthest went first, so they could tell everyone that the boys were fine,” he added.
“WE ONLY DRANK WATER”
The group had planned to explore the Tham Luang cave complex for about an hour after soccer practice on June 23. But a rainy season downpour flooded the tunnels, trapping them.
“We took turns digging at the cave walls,” Ekkapol said. “We didn’t want to wait around until authorities found us.”
But their efforts were to no avail, he said, adding, “Almost everyone can swim. Some aren’t strong swimmers, however.”
The group, which had eaten before going into the caves, took no food on an excursion they had intended to last only an hour, and had to subsist on water dripping from stalactites in the cave, he added.
“We only drank water,” said one of the boys, nicknamed Tee.
“I had no strength. I tried not to think about food so I didn’t get more hungry,” added the team’s youngest member, who goes by the name Titan, and was greeted with a rousing cheer from the audience on his arrival at the news conference.
Thoughts of their parents also preoccupied the boys, with one admitting, “I was afraid. That I wouldn’t go home and I would get scolded by my mother.”
The boys, who sported crisp haircuts, had gained 3 kg (6.6 lb) each on average since the rescue, and ran through confidence-building exercises ahead of Wednesday’s event, said hospital director Chaiwetch Thanapaisal.
The rescue effort drew global media attention and hundreds of journalists. Excitement picked up again in the usually sleepy town of Chiang Rai ahead of the much-anticipated 90-minute live broadcast on dozens of channels.
“We don’t know what wounds the kids are carrying in their hearts,” said justice ministry official Tawatchai Thaikaew, who asked for the boys’ privacy to be respected after the discharge, for fear the media attention could affect their mental health.
But the moment was bittersweet, as two of the boys held up a framed pencil sketch of Samarn Kunan, 38, the former Thai navy diver who died while he worked underwater, laying oxygen tanks along a potential exit route.
“Everyone was very sad,” said the coach, Ekkapol, adding that the boys would spend time as novice Buddhist monks to honor the diver’s memory. “They felt like they were the reason he had to die and his family had to suffer.”
Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak, Vorasit Satienlerk, Chayut Setboonsarng and Panarat Thepgumpanat, Patpicha Tanakasempipat in BANGKOK; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Darren Schuettler