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 hospital on Wednesday, appeared in front of 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 stage alongside their 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 them were the Thai Navy SEALs who stayed inside the cave with them once they were found.
Ardoon Sam-aon, the boy who responded in English to the first British diver who found them, shared the story of the moment they realized help was finally coming.
He thought it was in the evening, though he couldn’t be sure. The group was digging inside the cave, looking for possible exits, when he thought he heard the voices of people talking.
His coach, 25-year-old Ekkapol Ake Chanthawong, told the group to stay quiet. It was at that moment that they realized it was real people.
When the divers breached the surface, Ardoon said he was so shocked, all he could think to say was “hello.”
Addressing a question as to why they entered inside the cave, their coach, who is known locally as Ake, said the boys were curious to look inside the cave as they’d never visited before.
They explored the underground tunnels for about an hour, before deciding to turn back around, said Ake. By this time the tunnels had become partially flooded, forcing the group to swim 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. The group weren’t afraid, and thought they would be found, said Ake.
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.
Ake said he and the kids made the decision on who should go first.
They made the decision depending on which kids lived the furthest away — they thought they’d go straight home, and the kids 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 lessons they’ve learned from the incident, Ake said he’s going to live life more carefully. Ardoon, 14, said though people can’t predict the future, the experience had taught him about the consequences of acting careless.
The group’s youngest member, 11-year-old Chanin Viboonrungruang, also known as Titan, said it would make him more patient.
Other boys said though they still dreamed of becoming soccer players, they also now wanted to become Navy SEALs.
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 dramatic 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.
Friends said they knew the dangers and that the caves were considered off-limits at this time of year.
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.
Boys ‘just wanted to visit the cave for an hour’
Tanawat Viboonrungruang, the father of the youngest boy, 11-year-old Chanin, told CNN on Friday that his son had just wanted to “visit the cave for an hour.”
But after the flash floods, the boys and their coach ran deep inside the cave, where they became trapped.
Viboonrungruang said his son, nicknamed Titun, had told him their coach, Ekkapol Ake Chantawong, had told the boys to run away from the water and go to higher ground.
Inside the freezing cave, the coach and another boy hugged Titun to keep him warm, said his father.
After more than week trapped in the cold and dark, they finally saw a flash light. The boys came down from a small hill inside the cave and shouted for help.
Parents of the boys have since been advised by doctors not to speak to the press for at least a month, as they recover from the traumatic experience.