CHIANG RAI, Thailand: The applause was rapturous as the man who led one of the world’s toughest rescue operations emerged.
"We've done what others thought was impossible for the first time in the world," declared Narongsak Osottanakorn, the chief of a rescue mission to save 12 boys and their football coach in a flooded labyrinth of the Tham Luang cave complex north of Thailand.
“This is our pride – a mission possible for Thailand.”
The operation is historic. Not many people thought it would ever be completed when the world found out about the 13 survivors from the Wild Boar Academy football team, who were trapped deep inside the waterlogged cave network.
To get them out, they would have to dive for 1.7km in darkness through narrow, rocky and winding passages underground. None of the boys - aged from 11 to 16 - knew how to dive and neither did their coach.
But as it turned out, every single one of them has made an extraordinary exit to the outside world, where countless people around the world have prayed for more than two weeks to see their faces - 13 strangers.
“We said we’d bring out everyone and we did it,” Narongsak told a troop of journalists who had travelled from all parts of the world to witness the incredible mission.
More than 100 people took part in the rescue operation on Tuesday (Jul 10), with the first evacuee retrieved from the caves between 3pm and 4 pm local time. Five of them are being taken care of by a medical team at Chiang Rai Prachanukroh Hospital some 60km away from the Tham Luang Forest Park.
“Everyone is happy,” Narongsak said, “so very happy.”
The mission chief was chairing a press conference at the Pong Pha sub-district administration office, following a third and final day of sophisticated operations to evacuate the stranded 13.
An Australian doctor, a Thai army medic and three members of the Thai Navy SEAL unit who had stayed with the boys since they were found were the last people to leave the caves. According to Narongsak, they are all in good health.
The Tham Luang rescue mission involved more than 10,000 officers from the Thai Army, Navy and Air Force, police personnel, medics, diving experts, engineers, geologists, volunteers and many more - both from Thailand and abroad.
Halfway through the operation, however, the team was struck with grief when it lost a member - retired Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Saman Kunan. He died on his way out of the caves after supplying air tanks along the rescue route. He ran out of oxygen and lost consciousness, which later led to his death.
"Saman, rest in peace,” a Thai officer said during the news conference. “You're the hero of Tham Luang.”
"THAIS SHOULD LOVE EACH OTHER LIKE THEY DO TODAY"
The Tham Luang search and rescue operation lasted 17 days, from Jun 23 when the football team went missing to Jul 10 when its 13 members were declared safe. Throughout the mission, help poured in from all parts of Thailand and around the world.
“We’re able to complete this mission because we’re full of power – power of love. Everyone has sent their love to the 13 survivors and rescue personnel. I want it to be a lesson for the world, where people should love each other. I want all Thais to love each other like they do today,” Narongsak said, citing great coordination from all parties involved.
Narongsak then urged the people of Thailand to remember all the good things that took place throughout the operation, from the rescue team toiling around the clock to rescue the boys and their coach to all the volunteers who facilitated the mission.
“Take this lesson from Chiang Rai within the context of one small hill and use it to move Thailand forward.”
READ MORE | Full coverage of the search and rescue operation: