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(BBC) – The 12 boys rescued from a flooded cave in northern Thailand last week have spoken publicly of their ordeal for the first time, describing the “moment of miracle” when divers found them.
Adul Sam-on, 14, the only member of the group who speaks English, told reporters he could only say “hello” when the British divers surfaced.
The boys were trapped in the Tham Luang caves for more than two weeks.
They left hospital earlier on Wednesday and are on their way home.
The 12, who are members of a junior football team, the Wild Boars, appeared in their club’s kit at a news conference in Chiang Rai.
They were greeted by a banner that read “Bringing the Wild Boars Home” on a stage designed to look like a football pitch.
The boys sat alongside members of the Thai Navy Seals who helped rescue them.
One boy described how they had lived on water from the stones of the cave. “Water is clean,” he said. “Only water, no food.”
Chanin “Titan” Wibrunrungrueang, 11, said: “I tried not to think about food because it would make me hungry.”
Unbeatable team spirit
This was a joyous news conference. The first joke was cracked by the Thai Navy Seal diver as he introduced himself: “My name is Baitoey and I’m the most beautiful in the cave.”
The room erupted with laughter. First to speak was Adul, the boy who communicated with the British divers. He said the coach asked him to translate. His reply: “Chill, I can’t understand that quickly!” Cue more fits of giggles.
The boys’ friends, family and nurses from Chiang Rai Hospital were smiling and willing them on from the sidelines. A compere kept up a lively patter, making sure no-one was left out.
As attention turned to how they became trapped, the mood in the room became more sober. The boys listened attentively as their coach described finding the shelf that kept them safe.
When Titan, the youngest of the 12, said he tried not to think of food because it only made him hungry, the others laughed out loud – proof again that even in the worst conditions, these boys have an unbeatable team spirit.
The boys went missing on 23 June and were found by divers on 2 July. Navy Seals then brought them food and other supplies.
The group described how they bonded with their rescuers over more than a week, until their final rescue.
“We played draughts (checkers),” Titan said. “(Navy Seal) Baitoey always won and he was the king of cave.”
The team’s coach, Ekapol Chantawong, who was rescued with them, paid tribute to Saman Kunan, a former Navy Seal who died during the operation.
“We are impressed that Saman sacrificed his life to save us so that we could go and live our lives. Once we heard the news, we were shocked,” he said. “We were very sad. We felt like… we caused sadness to his family.”
Some boys said they would learn from their ordeal. One promised to be “more careful and live my life the fullest”. Another said: “This experience taught me to be more patient and strong.”
The boys are due to be ordained as Buddhist monks for a short period of time, a tradition for males in Thailand who have experienced a misfortune.
How did the rescue unfold?
The boys and the coach got trapped when sudden rain blocked their exit from Tham Luang cave, where they had planned to spend only an hour.
Nine days passed before the boys were found by two British rescue divers. It was unclear at first how they would be brought out of the flooded cave.
But with more rain expected, a risky rescue was attempted. Expert divers guided the boys and their coach through darkness and submerged passageways towards the exit.
Each boy was accompanied by a diver who also carried his air supply. The boys were heavily sedated ahead of the rescue to prevent them panicking.
The boys and their coach were rescued in three stages over three days.
All 13 were transferred to the hospital in Chiang Rai where they received medical and psychological assistance.
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