Thai cave rescue: Boys and football coach tried to dig their way out and will be ordained as monks in diver tribute

Gareth Davies
- AFP

 

Happy and healthy, the 12 members and coach of the Wild Boars football team showed off their ball skills to a clapping crowd before revealing for the first time the gripping inside details of their Thai cave rescue drama.

The boys, aged 11-16, and their coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, 25, spoke of the "miracle" moment when British divers discovered them cowering in the dark after ten days and described how they had clawed at the walls of the cave with rocks in a desperate attempt to escape.

The team were finally discharged from hospital to their families on Wednesday night, just over a week after they were extracted from the flooded Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand in a perilous diving operation that had the world on edge for more than two weeks.

But before they were allowed to taste their long-awaited favourite pork dishes, the young team spent more than an hour answering questions – vetted by a psychologist – describing the terror of their ordeal, their hopes for the future, and how the experience had changed their lives.

Speaking at a press conference, in a room oddly decked out like a football field, in the town of Chiang Rai, the boys also paid a moving tribute to Saman Kunan, 38, the former Thai Navy Seal who died during the rescue, and confirmed they would become novice monks in his honour.

Thai cave rescue | Read more

The coach, known as Ake, said they felt guilty about his death. In a touching moment, the youngest of the team, Titan, 11, stood in front of a portrait of Mr Kunan to pay his respects. “Thank you for your sacrifice,” he said.

To an enthralled audience, the team then described their first moments of fear and confusion as they realised they had become trapped by rapidly rising floodwaters on what they had intended to be a short one-hour exploration of the cave.

“We realised we were trapped on our way back,” said Ake, adding that they had initially tried to swim out. When that failed, they debated whether to go back or forward and decided to retreat further inside the cave in the hope of finding another exit.

“I was really afraid at that moment,” said one of the boys. But instead of giving in to their fears, they turned to survival, drinking the water that trickled down the limestone walls, and taking it in turns to try to dig their way out.

Dramatic rescues that defied the odds | Thai cave operation

They hoped the waters would recede and that rescuers would find them. But as the days passed without any food, their strength was sapped. “I felt dizzy and weak,” said Titan, the smallest boy in the team.

Adul Sam-on, 14, described the moment two British divers discovered the boys ten days later as a “miracle”.

It was Adul who spoke shaky English to John Volanthen and Rick Stanton as they first shone their torch on the emaciated children in the pitch-black cavern.

The teenager has been praised for calmly liaising between the Brits and the exhausted boys before an army doctor and three Thai Navy Seals arrived to look after them and to keep their spirits up by playing chequers.

One by one the boys charmed their audience, with their public apologies to their mothers and innocent requests for their favourite food. “I’ve been talking in my sleep about congee,” confessed one boy, laughing as he referred to a popular local rice porridge.

But they also showed a glimpse of the maturity and strength that sustained them through an ordeal that would have broken the spirit of many adults.

Thailand cave rescue, in pictures

“Everyone loves each other so much that there was no fight to go out first,” said Ake, revealing for the first time that their order of extraction, in three batches over three days, had been entirely voluntary.

Several of the boys stated their newfound ambition to become Navy Seals, while others will pursue their footballing dreams.  

"This experience taught me not to live carelessly," said Adul Sam-on, who also hopes the ordeal may springboard him to Thai citizenship. Originally from neighbouring Burma, he was left by his parents at a Thai church to ensure his education.

Timeline | Thailand cave rescue

Adul, Ake and two other teammates are also “stateless” but the authorities have hinted that the politically sensitive issue of their papers may soon be resolved.

Sanna Johnson, regional director for Asia at the International Rescue Committee, who help stateless people along the porous Thai-Burma border, said she hoped “the story of heroism” would “break down prejudice.”

“If they can lead the way so that other children and parents of families are given the same opportunities that would be brilliant,” she said.

1:32PM

Press conference ends in tribute to Thai king

Four of the team are not Thai citizens and are currently stateless, but the governor announced they have submitted their documents already to rectify their legal status.

The boys, Navy Seals and doctors ended the press conference by paying tribute to the Thai king, bowing in front of his portrait.

Another round of applause echoed around the room before they posed for photographs in front of the stage.

1:24PM

Team to be ordained as monks to pay tribute to Navy Seal

The boys and their coach have decided to be ordained as monks to pay tribute Saman Kunan - the Navy Seal who died during the rescue. 

Coach Ekkapol Chantawong  said they would all attend a temple and go through the ceremony together. 

Rescued Thai football coach Ekkapol Chantawong (L) together with 12 children pays tribute to the Navy Seal who died during their rescue Credit: AFP

 

1:22PM

First thing footballers will do when they get home - say sorry to parents

When asked about what they will do when they go home, the entire team said they will apologise to their parents and family. 

They all said they hadn't told their parents that they would be going to the cave, revealing they had only said they were going to play football. 

Inside the cave, they lived in fear of how much trouble they would get in when they returned home. 

One boy said: "I know my mother is going to punish me. I'm in big trouble with my mother."

When another boy was asked whether he thinks he deserves to be punished, he said he did and that his father would discipline him. 

1:18PM

Who decided the order the boys would leave the cave?

Many media channels asked who decided which boy would go first during the rescue. 

The coach said they decided that the boys who lived the furthest away would go out first.

It was apparently not a question of who was strongest or weakest. "Everyone loves each other so much that nobody competed to go out first," he said. 

The Navy Seals confirmed that the decision was voluntary. Dr Richard Harris, an Australian anaesthetist who played a pivotal role in the boys' medical care, said that they were all strong enough to leave and that the order of extraction did not matter. 

1:16PM

Young footballers looking forward to home-cooked food

The boys will be taken home immediately after the press conference, which is taking place in Chiang Rai in Thailand where the time is 7.15pm. 

When asked about the food they would like to eat when they go home, among the favourites was crispy pork.

Some of the twelves boys play football before the press conference Credit: AFP

One of the boys revealed how he was talking in his sleep about eating congee - a rice-type porridge. 

1:12PM

Coach would go back to cave - but only as a guide

 

The Wild Boars coach was asked whether or not he would return to the cave. 

In response, he said: "If someone just invites me then no. But I would volunteer as a guide if needed."

One of his players said: "This experience taught me not to live carelessly," while another said: "This taught me to value my life and the values inside me. This event can make me stronger."

1:07PM

'What lessons have you learned from this?'

Coach Ake told the gathered media: "We truly appreciated your kindness.We learned that we have to be more careful and have to check things more carefully before we do them."

One of the boys adds: "I promise to be a good person."

Another said his goal remains the same - to become a professional footballer, while one of his teammates revealed he now wants to become a Navy Seal. 

A young member of the squad said: "This experience has made me stronger."

1:03PM

Thai diver who died during rescue commemorated by team

A picture of the Thai Navy Seal diver who lost his life during the rescue was presented to his colleagues on stage. 

The coach describes Saman Kunan, 38, as "sacrificial", and says they feel very saddened by his death. 

The framed pencil sketch of the diver was surrounded by messages of thanks from each of the team, wishing the man peace. 

Dr Pak was with the children for nine days and became very close to the boys. 

The boys clasp their hands together as a token of thanks to the gathered media Credit: AFP

"We really got close to one another. We had to counter problems together and we struggled together, but happily," he said. "We worried about these kids. There were many great feelings but also sadness because we lost a Thai Navy Seal."

Titan, 11, wrote: "I would like to express our condolences. Please rest in peace. Thank you very much for your sacrifice. I felt sorry for the Lt commander's family and I want to say thank you."

The picture will be sent to the diver's family. 

1:00PM

'We were like a family,' says one footballer of team and rescuers

The Thai Navy Seals spoke at the press conference, but their identities have not been revealed. W

Wearing dark sunglasses and caps, one revealed that it was difficult to sleep and that foil sheets were placed on the floor.

One boy said:  "We were like a family, with the Seals. We ate and slept together."

12:57PM

Doctors played checkers with the boys to keep them energised

Doctors played checkers with the boys to keep them energised.

The host asks Dr Pak Loharachun, a Thai army medic who stayed inside the cave with the boys for days after they were discovered, what it was like. 

"We stayed to energise them, warm them up and keep them healthy," he said. Different rescue options were being discussed, including drilling down, or draining the cave. 

Dr Pak described the full-face masks that the boys were trained to use. "I was scared as they are all young and I didn't know whether they could dive out or not," he said.

12:50PM

Wild Boars football team took it in turns to try and dig through cave walls

One of the footballers said: "I started digging at the cave walls, to try and find a way out. I digged around three or four metres." 

"We talked whether we should go forward or should we go further inside." 

The boys rescued from the Thai cave Credit: AFP

The coach said: "One of the boys said there was a way out at the end of the tunnel, so we talked about whether we should move forwards or backwards. 

"But then it was decided we would move back into the cave. We had two solutions - wait for the rescuers or try to get out, but we could hear the water rising towards us. 

"And we looked forward and saw it rising - it came up around three metres. 

"Unfortunately we couldn't go forward, but we could dig at the cave wall. At least we'll do something. 

"We took turns. That was our routine for 10 days." 

12:46PM

Boys had no food or water in the cave

The Wild Boars footballers have revealed they took no food into the cave with them. 

They survived by drinking the water trickling down from the rocks inside the cave. 

After they woke up after spending their first night in the cave, they began to feel weak, so their coach told them to stay as still as possible. 

"We just drank water," one player said. "On the first day we didn't feel anything but after two days we started to feel tired and weak."

12:43PM

Why did the football team go into the cave?

The question on many people's lips was - why did you go in the cave in the first place?

The coach said that they planned to go after their football trip.

The adventure started with a bike ride at 10am in the morning and after football training they rode to the cave.

Some had been there before. On a previous trip they experienced some water coming into the cave, so this time they had only planned  to go in for an hour.

The Wild Boars Credit: AFP

On the way back to the exit they realised they were trapped. They had to swim. Asked how they felt at that moment, one team member said: "I was really afraid at that moment."

Then it started to get dark inside and they tried not to be frightened. The coach told them to start digging to try to release the water. 

12:37PM

Coach realised they were in trouble on their way back out of cave

"We realised we were trapped on our way back," the coach said. 

The team had only meant to go in there for a short time, but the water got deeper as they got further into the network of caves. 

All of the boys can swim, and it was decided to try and swim back out the way they came in. 

12:33PM

Wild Boars watched World Cup final in hospital

The boys watched the World Cup final in hospital - the very first football match they watched having escaped the cave. 

"It was really fun," the coach said.  

The majority of the boys were supporting France, who went on to win the tournament. 

12:31PM

Watch the English-translation version of the press conference here

 

12:28PM

Boy recalls moment British diver found them

The first question is - what did you think the first moment you saw the [British] divers. Adul Sam-on, 14, answers.

He learned English at church in Mae Sai and conversed with the British divers who first discovered the boys after they had been trapped alone underground for ten days.

The boys first saw the divers' torch looming out of the darkness, and then heard a voice. 

One of the footballers, who speaks a little English, talked about the moment divers made contact with the team. 

Twelve Thai boys and their football coach, rescued from a flooded cave Credit: AFP

He said they were on the rocks and they could not believe someone had made contact with them. 

The young footballer said the first voice he heard was British, and that his coach went to talk to him. 

"It was a miracle moment. We were surprised it was not Thai. He said, 'How are you?', and I said: 'We're fine'," he said. 

The British diver said it was "brilliant" that all 13 people were there. 

12:23PM

Boys introduce themselves to the gathered media

The boys, who were described as "quite obedient" by doctors, have introduced themselves to the audience. 

Doctors said they had "listened to the instructions given" to them.

They each took it in turns to stand up on stage and tell reporters their names and positions to applause.

People all over the world are watching the livefeed, posting messages of support. "They are so strong," says one message. "Good to see them strong and healthy," says another. 

 

12:18PM

Boys have gained 3kgs each on average in hospital

 

12:11PM

Thai footballers arrive at press conference

The Wild Boars football team have arrived at the press conference wearing football shirts. 

Sat on stage, they faced the world's media having been discharged from hospital on Wednesday morning.