The 12 boys rescued from a Thai cave were passed “sleeping” on stretchers through the treacherous passageways, a former Thai Navy SEAL told AFP Wednesday, giving the first clear details of an astonishing rescue mission that has captivated the world.
The nerve-shredding three-day operation ended on Tuesday with the final group of four boys and the coach emerging from the cave which had held them captive for 18 days.
The rescue sparked jubilation with Thais heaping praise on the rescue team of foreign and local divers as the triumphant tagline “Hooyah” pinballed across social media.
But Thai authorities have been coy on how a group of boys, many of whom could not swim and none with diving experience, could have navigated the treacherous narrow and submerged passageways of the Tham Luang complex, even with expert diving support.
The dangers of the rescue were brought into sharp relief last Friday by the death of a retired Thai Navy SEAL as he ran out off air in the flooded cave complex as the extraction plans were being laid.
After days of mounting speculation, another former SEAL diver revealed the boys were sleeping or partially-conscious.
“Some of them were asleep, some of them were wiggling their fingers…[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip](as if) groggy, but they were breathing,” Commander Chaiyananta Peeranarong told AFP.
“My job was to transfer them along,” he said, adding the “boys were wrapped up in stretchers already when they were being transferred”.
Junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha on Tuesday said the boys had been given a “minor tranquiliser” to prevent anxiety inside the narrow, twisting passages, many of which were submerged.
But he denied they were knocked out for an operation the rescue chief had called “mission impossible”.
Thai authorities imposed a media lockdown during the evacuation, even holding large white umbrellas around the boys as they lay in stretchers outside the cave as they were transferred to helicopters bound for hospital.
Saga grips the world
Thailand celebrated the successful mission to free 12 boys and their football coach from a cave Wednesday.
The rescue received blanket coverage in Thai media with newspapers The Nation running the headline “Hooyah! Mission accomplished” and the Bangkok Post emblazoned with “All Wild Boars saved”.
Despite spending days in the dark, dank cave health officials said the boys — who are aged 11 to 16[tooltip id=”4500c2f113202943ff1ae30d00c9d4ac”] [/tooltip]— are in good physical and mental health and eating normal food.
“It might be because they were all together as a team, helping each other out,” public health ministry inspector general Thongchai Lertwilairatanapong told reporters, singling out their 25-year-old coach for keeping their spirits high.
The saga of the “Wild Boars” gripped the world, with the lives of the group hanging in the balance as the threat of heavy rain injected urgency to an already perilous extraction bid.
Closer to home, Chiang Rai locals rejoiced at the odds-upsetting rescue bid.
Elsewhere Duangduen Sittiwongsa, a classmate of 16-year-old Pheeraphat “Night” Sompiengjai, whose birthday fell on the same day the team entered the cave, said they would give him cake when he came back to school.
“We will sing a song for him,” she said.
Rescuers had weighed up several options to save the boys, including keeping them in the cave through the months-long monsoon season.
But they were prodded into the dangerous task of bringing the team through submerged chambers and claustrophobic passages as oxygen levels in the cave plummeted and rains menaced.
The group were taken out in three batches by a team of 13 international divers flanked by the Thai Navy SEALs, who greeted each successful rescue with a “Hooyah” on their Facebook page.
That sign off quickly turned into a hashtag shared across social media, where luminaries of business, politics and sport extended their best wishes to the team and the rescuers.
“I’m very happy and relieved. I haven’t been able to sleep for days. I’m happy that the boys are out too,” said Khamluh Guntawong, the grandfather of team coach Ekkapol Chantawong.
The group became trapped in rising floodwaters and were found nine days later emaciated and dishevelled on a muddy ledge, with water lapping ominously below.
The saga captivated a global audience for over two weeks, rewarding them with a remarkable happy ending.
French football star Paul Pogba dedicated his country’s World Cup semi-final victory over Belgium to “the heroes of the day, well done boys, you are so strong”.
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