The 12 members of a youth soccer team and their coach who spent more than two weeks trapped underground in a flooded cave network in northern Thailand have appeared in public for the first time since their ordeal.
The boys, who were discharged from the hospital on Wednesday, addressed the world’s media at a specially arranged press conference in Chiang Rai.
Dressed in matching team shirts, the boys and their coach appeared happy and relaxed as they took their place on a large-purpose built stage alongside a medical team and specialist doctors.
The boys, all members of the Wild Boars junior soccer team, introduced themselves to the media, shared their nicknames and told the audience what position they played on the team.
Sitting beside the boys were the Thai Navy SEALs who stayed inside the cave with them once they were found.
The moment they were found
Ardoon Sam-aon, the 14-year-old boy who became famous after responding in English to the first diver to reach the group, spoke of his shock on realizing they had been discovered.
Ardoon, like other members of the group, was busy digging — looking for a possible exit — when some of the boys thought they heard the sound of people talking.
The group’s coach, 25-year-old Ekkapol Chanthawong, also known as Ake, told the group to stay quiet.
The coach asked one of the boys to move closer to the ledge and shine a flashlight on the water, but the boy was too scared, said Ardoon, who volunteered instead.
When the British divers breached the surface, Ardoon said he was so shocked, all he could think to say was “hello!”
Why go in?
Addressing the question as to why they entered the dangerous cave complex, Ake said the boys were curious to look inside as they’d never visited before.
Ake said it was not unusual for the group to participate in group activities after soccer practice on Saturday afternoons.
Some of the boys hadn’t seen the cave and wanted to see it in person, said Ake.
The group explored the underground tunnels for about an hour, before deciding to turn back around. But by this time the tunnels had become partially flooded, forcing the group to head back towards the cave’s entrance. It was at this point they realized they were trapped, said Ake.
With the entrance flooded and no immediate way out, the group retreated back into the cave to find somewhere to rest.
“I can’t remember whose voice that was, and then someone said, ‘Are we lost?'” said Ake, who reassured the group that they were not lost and help would come. Ake said the group wasn’t afraid.
During the first 10 days, there was one particularly worrying moment that caused the group to shift course — Ake heard the sound of flowing water, and realized it was rising fast.
Ake recalled how he told the boys to get to higher ground. Concerned that they might soon be submerged, he instructed the group to start digging and look for a potential exit.
Ake said the group was very sad to hear about the case of the Thai Navy SEAL who had died during the rescue effort, and felt somewhat guilty that they may have caused his death.
Who should go first
Ake said he and the kids made the decision on who should go first based on who lived the furthest away. Ake thought the rescued kids would go straight home and those who got out first could spread the word, not realizing the global media had descended on the cave.
Many of the boys also apologized to their parents for not telling them they went to the cave.
When asked about the lessons they’ve learned from the incident, Ake said he was going to live life more carefully.
Ardoon said though people can’t predict the future, the experience had taught him about the consequences of acting careless.
Other boys said though they still dreamed of becoming soccer players, they also now wanted to become Navy SEALs.
Friends said they knew the dangers and that the caves were considered off-limits at this time of year.
Authorities said that more than 100 questions were sent in from members of the media, though only a handful were selected.
All 12 players and their coach had been under close supervision at Chiang Rai Prachanukroh hospital, near the border with Myanmar, since they were rescued from the cave on July 10.
The difficult mission to save the group captured the world’s attention, with heads of state, celebrities and even soccer stars at the World Cup in Russia sending good wishes and messages of hope to the boys and the team of divers and rescue experts.
The boys disappeared June 23 after going inside the sprawling Tham Luang cave network through a small entrance which was soon flooded by seasonal monsoon rains.
They were found nearly two weeks after disappearing, having survived by drinking the water dripping off the caves roof that is naturally filtered.
But a happy ending was far from assured. Rising waters and plummeting oxygen levels convinced rescue workers that something needed to be done sooner rather than later, despite the fact that expert divers said the cave posed some of the toughest conditions they’d ever faced.
Those dangers became all the more real after Saman Kunan, a former Thai Navy SEAL who volunteered to help in the rescue effort, ran out of air underwater and died. He was returning from delivering oxygen to the boys.
Authorities meticulously planned the rescue, bringing the group out in three separate stages, sedating each boy and pairing them with two experienced divers apiece.
All of them made it out alive.