CHIANG RAI, Thailand (AP) — The boys meant to explore the cave for just an hour, a casual jaunt to relax after soccer practice, but the waters rose. The teammates climbed higher, using their hands to feel the walls for a crawl space that would lead to safer, higher ground. Those handprints were among the first signs of where the boys were, what they had done to escape the floods, and what dangers rescuers would face in their mission to save the boys and their coach.
The boys now recuperating and the rescuers who brought them to safety are starting to share stories of the dangers and their survival. The hospital in northern Thailand where the 12 boys and their soccer coach are quarantined said Friday they are basically healthy, aside from some minor infections. A psychiatrist said their mental state seems fine.
Family members, first able to reunite with them only through a glass window, now can meet face-to-face though still not touch, to ensure any illnesses don’t spread.
Banphot Konkum, father of 13-year-old Duangpetch Promthep, told The Associated Press his son — better known by his nickname, Dom — said the team members didn’t know rain had started falling after they had entered the cave on June 23. But the rain caused flooding in the cave, blocking them from exiting.
“After an hour when they wanted to leave, the water level was rising. They ran further inside the cave to escape from the water. The water flow was strong,” said Banphot.
In their search for a safe haven, the boys were reported to have used their hands to feel the walls for an opening to take them to a higher, safer spot. Searchers later found what they thought were the boys’ handprints, giving them confidence the boys were alive and that the searchers were on the right path.
“They, all 13 of them, saw a small passage or a crawl space, so they all dug the hole to get through to another spot, until they found Nen Nom Sao,” Banphot said, referring to the sandy slope on which they ended up sheltering. There was nowhere else to go.
Dom’s grandmother, Kameay Promthep , said she would tell Dom never to go near the cave or water again because she doesn’t want anything to happen to him or for him to cause trouble to others again.
“I will tell Dom that he has to thank all the Thai people from all over the country and people from all over the world who were kind enough to come and help Dom. Without the (Thai navy) SEALs, the officials, and everyone who came and helped, Dom wouldn’t be here today. He would not be seeing his Grandma, and Grandma wouldn’t see his face again. From now on, Dom will have to be a good person.”
Banphot said all 13 rescued team members will enter the monkhood to pay tribute to Saman Kunan, a former Thai navy SEAL who died while diving to place essential supplies along the rescue route. Becoming a monk at a temple for at least a short period is a way of making merit in Thai Buddhist tradition.
“We are planning the date and will do it whenever all the families are all ready,” said Banphot.
The mother of the youngest Wild Boar teammate, 11-year old Chanin Wiboonrungruang, told a Bangkok newspaper that her son told her the team did not make a special point of bringing along food since they were only planning a short trek into the cave.
“After the first three nights with no food in the cave, my son felt extreme hunger and cried,” Aikhan told the Bangkok Post. “He had to rely only on water dripping from the rock. It was very cold at night and pitch dark. They had to lie huddled together.
She said her son, nicknamed Tun, said the boys’ 25-year-old soccer coach Ekapol “Ake” Chanthawong, told them to meditate to ease their hunger and save their energy.
One of the two British divers who found the group said the rescue operation was “completely uncharted, unprecedented territory,” and that he had not been certain the boys would be found alive.
“Nothing like this has been done,” Rick Stanton said at a news conference Friday at London’s Heathrow airport after returning from Thailand.
Recalling the moment on July 2 when he and his diving partner John Volanthen found the boys on their 10th day inside the cave, he said his initial reaction was “of course, excitement, relief that they were still alive.”
“As they were coming down the slope we were counting them till we got to 13. Unbelievable,” he said. “They looked in good health, but of course when we departed all we could think about was how we were going to get them out. And so there was relief tempered with uncertainty.”
The British divers who blazed the trail were praised by Australian doctor-diver Richard Harris, who stayed in the cave for three days to oversee the medical care of the boys while they were waiting to be rescued.
“Rick and John not only found the children and coach alive, but conveyed the gravity of the situation to the rest of the world and thus the rescue started in earnest,” he wrote on his Facebook page on Friday, as he was flying home on an Australian air force plane with his countrymen who also worked at the cave. “The 4 Brits then did further supply dives to the soccer players, the coach and the four Thai Navy Seals which allowed them to prepare and sustain themselves for the rescue ultimately.”
Thai authorities had contacted the British Cave Rescue Council for help when the boys disappeared. The British divers left London on June 26 with special rescue equipment, including radios designed to work in caves.
An international team of cave divers and Thai navy SEALs extracted the 12 boys and coach in a high-risk, three-day mission that concluded Tuesday.
“None of the tasks were easy,” Thai navy SEAL commander Rear Adm. Arpakorn Yookongkaew said Thursday after his men flew back to their base at Sattahip on the Gulf of Thailand.
“We were working on many tasks and we had to plan well. Our troops were taking risks, working in dangerous conditions and risking their lives. Many had to go to hospitals after the dives and many were sick. But we didn’t mention it because it could affect morale.”
Harris also acknowledged the contribution of the many who were not directly involved with the diving operations, “swarms of men and women” from Thailand and the international community who provided “everything from catering, communications, media and of course the huge teams of workers filling the cave with tonnes and tonnes of equipment to try and lower the water and sustain the diving operations.”
“I have never seen anything like it with man battling to control the natural forces of the monsoon waters. Local climbing and rope access workers rigged the dry cave section for that part of the rescue and scoured the bush for more entrances to the cave. Drilling teams attempted to get through nearly a km of rock to the boy’s location. And all this time 4 brave Navy Seals sat with the Wild Boars knowing they were in as much danger as the kids.”