, CHIANG RAI, Thailand, Jul 19 – It was meant to be a fun excursion after football practice, but it turned into a life-threatening, two-week ordeal for a group of youngsters trapped in a cave with rising waters and no apparent escape route.
When coach Ekkapol Chantawong led twelve members of his “Wild Boar” youth football team into the mouth of northern Thailand’s Tham Luang cave complex on 23 June, he thought they’d be no more than an hour.
“We didn’t have anything with us, no food,” he recalled at a press conference on Wednesday where the now world famous team recounted their harrowing ordeal and miraculous escape in their own words for the first time.
One of his pupils had a tutor class to get to later that evening. And besides, Ekkapol thought, the team often explored the complex after practice and knew its meandering tunnels well.
Thailand’s wet season was just around the corner – a period of monsoonal downpours that often floods the cave — and there were already pools of water inside the mouth.
A sign outside the cave warned against entry during the monsoon. But the kids were keen to have an adventure.
“We were discussing whether we wanted to explore the cave and, if so, how we would have to swim,” the 25-year-old coach, a much-loved mentor to the boys, recalled. “It would be wet, it would be cold. Everybody said yes.”
The team, aged 11 to 16, left their bikes and football boots near the opening of the cave before one of the boys waded into the water. The rest followed.
Trapped in the dark
Had the heavens not opened, the Wild Boars would have been home by mid-afternoon.
Instead a sudden deluge forced them deep inside the cave as floodwaters rushed through the entrance and steadily rose up the walls.
That fateful decision sparked one of the most remarkable, touch-and-go cave rescue operations in history.
It brought Thai Navy SEALs and international cave diving experts together to pull off the fiendishly difficult task of first locating the missing boys and then extracting them through miles of flooded passageways, as a breathless world looked on.
One former Thai Navy SEAL, Saman Kunan, died when his air ran out during a resupply mission.
Trapped in the dank, pitch-black darkness, the boys had no idea whether anyone was even coming for them — let alone that they had generated non-stop global headlines.
“I was really afraid that I wouldn’t be able to return home,” 13-year-old Mongkol Boonpiem, recalled.
Fortunately they had a fresh water supply.
“We drank water that fell from the rocks,” Pornchai Khamluang, the 16-year-old boy who first waded into the water, told reporters. “It was clean and tasted like any drinking water.”
As the hours turned into days, the boys did what they could to keep their spirits up — coach Ekkapol, who spent some years in a local monastery as a Buddhist monk, taught them how to meditate to keep calm and preserve air.
They had little concept of time but the first time they went to sleep they prayed, Ekkapol said.
Calm camaraderie saw them through but there were moments of terror.
The rising floodwaters kept pushing the group deeper into the cave. At one point they started trying to dig their way out, a futile illustration of their desperation in a cave system buried under hundreds of metres of limestone.
“We used rocks to dig out the cave wall,” said Phanumas Saengdee, 13. “We dug three to four metres”.
Eventually the team settled on a small muddy ledge some four kilometres inside the cave, figuring all they could do was hope someone would find them.
Salvation came on day nine in what to the boys seemed like the most unlikely of forms. The team heard voices but the language they were speaking was not Thai.
Two British cave diving experts, who had spent days battling the flooded passages, had finally located the stranded group.
Adul Sam-on, 14, was the only member of the Wild Boars who could speak English.
“When he (the diver) emerged from the water I was shocked that he was British,” he recalled. “It was a miracle, I was frightened and I asked him ‘Can I help you?'”
In video of the scene that was captured by one of the diver’s bodycameras and later broadcast around the world, the bedraggled boys, dressed in mud-caked football kits, could be seen thanking their rescuers.
“Many people are coming. Many, many people,” the diver reassured the boys.
They were no longer lost or alone. The rescue mission was on.