CHIANG RAI, Thailand: The 12 Thai boys and their football coach who were recently rescued from a flooded cave recounted details of their ordeal as they made their first public appearance on Wednesday (Jul 18) at a nationally broadcast news conference in the northern province of Chiang Rai.
"It is a miracle," Wild Boars footballer Adul Sam-on, 14, said of the rescue, as the boys were gently quizzed about their terrifying experience.
“We heard people talking and tried to listen carefully,” said Adul of the moment they were found. “We first thought they were Thai but found out later they were foreigners. I didn’t know what to say but ‘hello’”.
A packed crowd greeted the youngsters - some of whom were trapped in the Tham Kuang cave complex for 17 days - after they were discharged from hospital in Chiang Rai, and watched as they played with footballs on a small makeshift pitch before taking their seats.
The boys, aged 11 to 16, were all smiles and appeared healthy as they answered questions from journalists.
The boys did not take any food with them as they ventured into the cave, the boys’ 25-year-old coach Ekkapol Chantawong said. One boy recalled how they survived only on water from stalactites in the cave for nine days.
"We tried to dig out as we thought we cannot only wait for authorities to get us," said Ekkapol. “We dug holes to find a way to escape and stopped when we were tired. We kept drinking water to fill our belly.”
But their efforts were to no avail, he said, adding: "Almost everyone can swim. Some aren't strong swimmers, however."
Doctors said all 13 were in good physical and mental health after recuperating in hospital.
Contrary to earlier reports, they were not there to celebrate a team member's birthday, but went to explore the cave and swim.
The briefing was closely monitored, with experts warning of possible long-term distress from the more than two weeks they spent trapped inside a cramped, flooded chamber of the Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand.
The public relations department in Chiang Rai province had solicited questions from news outlets in advance and forwarded them to psychiatrists for screening.
"Today we will get the answers to the questions we have been wondering, from the boys themselves," said Suthichai Yoon, presenter of the 45-minute programme televised live on dozens of channels.
The boys, who sported crisp haircuts, had gained an average of 3kg each since the rescue, and went through confidence-building exercises ahead of Wednesday's event, the hospital director said.
The Wild Boars' rescue - a high-profile operation that involved more than 10,000 security personnel, engineers, geologists, medics, world-class cave divers from around the world and other volunteers - was regarded as one of the toughest in the world.
Their disappearance quickly triggered a nine-day search operation, which led two British cave diving experts to find them in one of the air pockets located 3km to 4km from the cave entrance.
It took eight days for about 90 divers - Thai Navy SEALs and international cave divers - to safely extract them through a narrow underground tunnel in deep, flooded and dark conditions.
On Jul 8, the first four Wild Boars were evacuated, followed by another group of four the following day. On Jul 10, the world cheered as the remaining five were brought out of the cave complex and taken to Chiang Rai Prachanukroh Hospital, where their friends had also been admitted.
The order in which the boys eventually left the cave did not depend on the state of their health, said their coach, who has been credited by some parents with keeping the boys alive.
"The ones whose homes are the furthest went first, so they could tell everyone that the boys were fine," Ekkapol added.
During the rescue operation, Thailand lost an ex-Thai SEAL diver, Saman Kunan, who died on his way out of the caves after replenishing air tanks along the rescue route. However, his death did not dampen the rescuers' morale.
READ: 'Freezing water with zero visibility but we kept going': Singaporean diver who took part in Thai cave operation
“Let me assure you that our people are never discouraged and remain in great spirits. But we won’t let our colleagues die for nothing. We will soldier on," said Thai Navy SEAL commander Apakorn Yookongkaew.
The 13 Wild Boars paid tribute to Kunan on Wednesday.
“We feel very sorry that Saman lost his life trying to save us,” said coach Ekkapol. “We were shocked to learn about his death … He died because of us."
“We’ve learnt that living carelessly has consequences – good and bad,” said Adul. “From now on I’ll live my life carefully and I’ll live to the fullest.”
A few of the boys said they wanted to become Thai Navy SEALs when they grew up. “When I grow up, I want to be a Thai Navy SEAL because I want to help people,” said fellow survivor Phong. Mark, another boy, said one of the SEALs was “like our father and we’re his sons”.
READ: Thai boys rescued from cave in tears, mourn diver who died
They also apologised to their parents for going to the cave in one of the several heartwarming moments during the conference.
One admitted: "I was afraid that I wouldn't go home and I would get scolded by my mother."
After the conference, the boys and coach Ek headed home after 25 days away from their families.
READ MORE | Full coverage of the search and rescue operation: https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/topic/Thailand-cave-rescue