The 12 Thai boys who were trapped in a cave with their football coach have spoken publicly for the first time since their rescue last week.
The boys, who were discharged from the hospital yesterday, told a crowd of reporters in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand, that they took turns trying to dig themselves out.
They also spoke about the death of Saman Kunan, the Thai navy diver who died while placing oxygen tanks along a potential escape route.
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“The boys, ages 11 to 16, wrote messages of thanks and promised to be ‘good guys’ on a portrait of Kunan,” CNN reports.
What did the boys do while they were trapped?
Ekkapol Chantawong, 25, the team’s coach, said they started trying to free themselves straight away, as they did not want to wait around for the authorities to find them.
“We took turns digging at the cave walls,” he said.
Other members of the team described how they had “clawed at the walls of the cave with rocks in a desperate attempt to escape”, reports The Daily Telegraph.
After realising that they were trapped, the boys retreated into the cave, hoping to find another exit.
“I was really afraid at that moment,” one of the boys said. “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 ten days.”
One of the boys said that they dug “three or four metres” into the wall of the cave.
How were the boys rescued?
A massive operation was launched to save the Wild Boars football team after heavy rains caused flooding that left them trapped deep inside the cave complex while they were exploring it.
“After they were found by divers... huddled in darkness on a ledge and cut off from the outside world for nine days, the race began to get them out before the weather deteriorated even further,” the broadcaster adds.
The first eight boys were rescued on Sunday 9 July. The entire team were said to be in good physical and mental health, but were taken to hospital as a precaution.
Officials have “lavished praise on the Thai and international divers” who executed the dangerous rescue missions, guiding the boys - who could barely swim and had no diving experience - through a treacherous 2.5-mile escape route through the cave, says The Daily Telegraph.
Theresa May and Donald Trump were among the world leaders to send their congratulations, with May saying the world would be “saluting the bravery of all those involved”.
Why were the boys in the cave?
It appears they were taking part in a kind of initiation ritual, according to one of the rescue team members.
The boys left their backpacks and shoes “before wading in and trying to go to the end of the tunnel, sort of like an initiation for local young boys to… write your name on the wall and make it back”, said Ben Reymenants. “A flash flood because of sudden heavy rain locked them in.”
Reymenants said that the boys were stable and mentally fit, but weak owing to lack of food.
Who found them?
The British divers believed to be the first to find the group have been identified as Rick Stanton and John Volanthen.
Rescue workers, including Thai Navy Seals and experts from the US, UK and Australia, had initially been trying to reach a part of the cave known informally as Pattaya Beach, where it was thought the team had taken shelter.
However, that part of the cave system was also flooded, forcing the boys to find a dry area to huddle together around 400 metres deeper into the cave.
Journeying into the cave “was very taxing, especially with the emotional load of the lives of 12 young boys”, Reymenants said, according to Sky News.
The dive was “one of the more extreme cave dives I’ve done”, he said, pointing to the strong current and poor visibility, and to the complexity and long distances involved in the expedition.
What will happen to the boys next?
The operation to get the group out of the cave drew global attention and now that they have been rescued, they’ll have to overcome a new challenge: fame.
“I don’t know how he will cope [with the attention],” said the grandmother of one of the rescued boys, 16-year-old Pheeraphat Sompiengjai. “I’m just happy he got out of the cave.”
The head of the Thai Navy Seal diving team involved in their rescue urged all of the boys to make the most of their lives and to “be a force for good”, reports Reuters.
“A lot of parasites will want them to sign the rights to books, to films,” said Jorge Galleguillos, one of the 33 Chilean miners who became a similar global phenomenon after spending 69 days trapped underground in 2010.
“It’s dangerous, after everything that’s happened, that you become a global celebrity and everyone wants something from you.”
Regardless of the feverish media interest, the group will need peace and privacy in order to recover from their ordeal, warns Dr Andrea Danese, of the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neuroscience at King’s College London.
“The boys need to go back to their normal life, to their daily routines, in order to fully appreciate that the threat is over,” said Danese.
The rescue has also drawn attention to the plight of Thailand's stateless residents.
Three of the team members and their coach are members of ethnic minorities and not recognised as Thai nationals. As such, they are denied some of rights and opportunities afforded to citizens. For instance, because of their status, the two boys could never become professional football players.
Authorities in Bangkok “have now promised to provide them legal assistance and say that, if there are no complications, all will have Thai nationality within six months”, reports The Independent.
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