BANGKOK: Twelve boys and their football coach rescued from a flooded cave in Thailand planned to explore the cavern complex for only about an hour before treacherous flood waters rose to trap them for more than two weeks, one of the boys' fathers said.
All 12 of the boys and their 25-year-old coach were brought to safety over the course of a three-day rescue, organised by Thai Navy SEALs and an international team of diving and caving experts, that ended on Tuesday.
They had gone into the Tham Luang cave in the northern province of Chiang Rai on Jun 23, for a quick excursion after football practice, when a rainy season downpour flooded the tunnels.
"He told me that as soon as they finished practice they went to play at the cave. They thought they'd only be an hour," Banpot Korncam, father of the 13-year-old captain of the "Wild Boars" team, told media.
"While they were inside the cave it rained, water flowed in and everyone took off," Banpot said.
Two British divers found the boys on Jul 2, squatting on a muddy mound in a flooded chamber several kiometres inside the complex, nine days after they went for their quick jaunt.
Then the problem became how to get them back out through the tunnels, some completely full of fast-flowing flood water.
The boys, aged 11 to 16, had to dive for part of their journey out before they were put on green plastic toboggan-like stretchers and carried, at times through steep, rocky tunnels, with ropes strung overhead.
Many people in Thailand have credited the coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, or Ek as he is known, for keeping the boys safe during the ordeal.
"They just sat quietly without doing anything because it was dark," said Banpot, recounting what his son, who is still in hospital, had told him.
"When they were hungry Coach Ek would use a flashlight to shine on the stalactites above," he said.
READ: Commentary: Praise for heroic Thai cave rescue, but time to let boys return to their normal lives?
The group survived by drinking water that dripped off the stalactites and the cave walls, rescue officials said.
Initially isolated in hospital in Chiang Rai because of fears of infection, the boys have now been allowed to meet their families. They will stay in hospital at least a week.
"The boys' health is improving ... relatives can now visit them in close proximity," said Thongchai Lertwilairatanapong, a health ministry inspector.
The rescue gripped the world, with much praise focusing on the Navy SEALs and the international team of divers who helped them, toiling for days in dangerous conditions to get the boys out. A former Thai Navy SEAL diver died during the mission.
John Volanthen, one of the two British divers who found the boys, played down the gallantry.
"We're not heroes," he told the BBC after arriving back in London.
"What we do is very calculating. It's very calm, it's quite the opposite ... But it's really the international team I would like to focus on and the Thai SEALs."
Volanthen was the first person the boys heard after nine days trapped in the flooded cave. A video posted by the Thai SEALs captured the moment.
"How many of you?" he asked, a torch beam scanning the boys crowded on the bank.
Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha said on Thursday international members of the rescue team would be given a "Thailand Elite" card worth 500,000 baht (US$15,000) with benefits including a five-year visa in thanks.
(Writing by Amy Sawitta Lefevre)
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