Wednesday 15 August 2018

'We took turns trying to dig our way out of cave'

The Thai boys and their football coach attend a press conference in Chiang Rai following their discharge from the hospital. Photo: Getty
The Thai boys and their football coach attend a press conference in Chiang Rai following their discharge from the hospital. Photo: Getty

Nicola Smith

Happy and healthy, the 12 players and coach of the Wild Boars team showed off their footballing skills to an appreciative crowd before revealing, for the first time in public, the gripping details of their Thai cave rescue.

The boys, aged 11-16, and their coach, Ekapol Chanthawong (25), spoke of the moment when British divers discovered them cowering in the dark after 10 days and described how they had scraped at the walls of the cave with rocks in a desperate attempt to escape.

The team was finally discharged from hospital yesterday, just over a week after they were extracted from the flooded Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand in a perilous diving operation that had the world on edge for more than a fortnight.

But before they were allowed on to their long-awaited taste of home cooking, the young team spent more than an hour answering questions - vetted by a psychologist - describing their ordeal and how the experience had changed their lives.

Speaking at a press conference in the town of Chiang Rai, in a room oddly decked out like a football field, the boys paid tribute to Saman Kunan (38), the Thai navy Seal diver who died during the rescue, and they confirmed they would become novice monks in his honour.

The coach, known as Ake, said the whole team felt guilty about his death. In a touching moment, the youngest of the team, Titan (11), stood in front of a portrait of Mr Kunan to pay his respects. "Thank you for your sacrifice," he said.

Coach Ekkapol Chantawong, known as Ake, greets a wellwisher at the event. Photo: Getty
Coach Ekkapol Chantawong, known as Ake, greets a wellwisher at the event. Photo: Getty

To an enthralled audience, the team described the first moments of fear and confusion as they realised they were trapped by rapidly rising floodwaters on what they had intended to be a one-hour exploration of the cave.

Ake said the boys initially "just wanted to walk around" the cave before some asked if they could venture deeper. After testing the water and finding it "wasn't too deep", Ake agreed that they could trudge further in.

When they turned round to go back, a short while later, the coach said, the water level had dramatically risen and they became disorientated, losing sight of the exit.

"We realised we were trapped on our way back," said Ake, adding that they had initially tried to swim out. When that failed, they debated whether to go back or forward and decided to retreat further inside the cave in the hope of finding another exit.

The boys show their respect with a portrait of diver Saman Gunan, who died during the rescue. Photo: AP
The boys show their respect with a portrait of diver Saman Gunan, who died during the rescue. Photo: AP

"I was really afraid at that moment," said one of the boys. But instead of giving into their fears, they turned to survival, drinking water that trickled down the limestone walls, and taking it in turns to try to dig their way out.

They hoped the waters would recede and that rescuers would find them but as the days passed, their strength drained away. "I felt dizzy and weak," said Titan.

Adul Sam-on (14) described the moment when two British divers emerged from the dark water 10 days later as "a miracle". It was Adul who spoke shaky English to John Volanthen and Rick Stanton as they first shone their torch on the emaciated children in the pitch-black cavern.

Adul has been praised for calmly liaising between the Britons and the exhausted boys until a Thai army doctor and three navy Seals arrived.

One by one, the boys charmed their audience with their public apologies to their mothers and innocent requests for their favourite food. But they also showed the maturity and strength that had sustained them through the ordeal.

"Everyone loves each other so much that there was no fight to go out first," said Ake, revealing that the order of extraction, in three batches over three days, had been entirely voluntary.

Several stated their new-found ambition to become Thai navy Seals, while others will pursue their footballing dreams. "This experience taught me not to live carelessly," said Adul. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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