Everyone rescued from Thai cave
Thai cave rescue ends in success as remaining boys and coach are taken out safely
CHIANG RAI: If there is a story that needed - no, demanded - a fairy-tale ending, this was it.
On June 23, 12 boys and their coach from the Moo Pa (Wild Boar) football academy in northern Thailand enter Tham Luang cave during heavy rain. They are later reported missing.
After several days of searching by divers in the flooded cave system that runs for kilometres, there is still no sign of them.
Fears mount as hope of finding the group alive grows slimmer with each passing day.
But no one gives up.
The search becomes an international effort as cave-diving experts from the US, UK and elsewhere chip in. Others scour the mountain terrain to find a way in from above.
After nine days, two British divers find the group huddled on a muddy ledge in pitch darkness more than 4km inside the cave network.
Everyone has survived the ordeal, but the story is far from over.
Now begins the race against time to get the boys and their coach to safety before more rain falls.
The team of 90 divers, 50 of them foreigners, must come up with a plan to extract the boys, many of whom cannot swim, through a claustrophobic tunnel network that is completely flooded in some places and extremely narrow in others.
The conditions are so perilous a retired Thai Navy Seal dies while laying out oxygen tanks underwater in a tunnel.
On Sunday, the rescue mission, dubbed "Mission Impossible", begins and four boys are taken out safely.
On Monday, another four boys follow.
Yesterday, the story finally gets its fairy-tale ending when the last four boys and their coach are also taken out safely.
They had been stranded in the cave for 17 days.
In an increasingly divisive world wracked by trade wars and the separation of children from their mothers, this is the feel-good story to end all feel-good stories.
The Thai Navy Seals said it best on their Facebook page: "We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what. All the thirteen Wild Boars are now out of the cave. Everyone is safe."
Mr Narongsak Osotthanakorn, who headed the rescue operation, told a press conference at 9.30pm yesterday: "Five have come out safely. Every parent will see their sons through their glass at the hospital by tonight. This is a success.
"There were 12 divers working, a doctor from Australia was also in there to check everyone, and a hundred others working. The first one came out before 4pm and now all have been transported safely to the hospital."
Mr Narongsak later said that army medic Dr Pak Loharnshoon, who had been with the group since a day after they were found, and three other Seal divers, had come out safely.
Miracle or not, this has been a story of courage and ingenuity - from the rescuers of diverse nationalities and of remarkable resilience from the boys, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach.
A foreign diver in the rescue mission hailed the boys as "incredibly strong", and described their treacherous escape journey as unprecedented, AFP reported.
"They are getting forced to do something that no kid has ever done before. It is not in any way normal for kids to go cave diving at age 11," Mr Ivan Karadzic, who runs a diving business in Thailand, told the BBC in an online interview yesterday.
"They are diving in something considered (an) extremely hazardous environment in zero visibility, the only light that is in there is the torchlight we bring ourselves."
Mr Karadzic, who the BBC reported was stationed near a difficult stretch of the cave to replace oxygen tanks and help guide people through, said the rescue workers had feared the worst.
"We were obviously very afraid of any kind of panic from the divers," he said, adding that he was in awe of the boys' ability to stay calm.
"I cannot understand how cool these small kids are, you know? Thinking about how they've been kept in a small cave for two weeks, they haven't seen their mums. Incredibly strong kids. Unbelievable almost."
Assistant coach Ekkapol Chantawong also played a key role in keeping the boys in good spirits by getting them to meditate and forgoing food.
The first eight boys rescued are in good mental and physical health, officials said yesterday, though two are on antibiotics after being tested for pneumonia.
"Everyone is in a good mental state," Mr Jesada Chokedamrongsuk, permanent secretary of the public health ministry, told reporters at the Chiang Rai hospital.
But the boys have had to cope with some bad news.
They had been invited by Fifa to watch the World Cup final in Russia, but doctors told them they must remain in hospital for a week to avoid infection.
"They're likely to watch it on television," said Mr Jedsada.