‘I know he will blame him­self’

Trapped with Thai soc­cer team, young coach is scru­ti­nized for role in sit­u­a­tion and sur­vival

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY SHIBANI MAH­TANI

mae sai, thai­land — The head coach of the Thai soc­cer team spent the morn­ing of June 23 pre­par­ing his young as­sis­tant for an im­por­tant task: look­ing out for the boys by him­self.

Nop­pa­rat Khan­thavong, the 37year-old head coach of the Moo Pa (Wild Boars) soc­cer team, had an ap­point­ment that morn­ing. Ekapol Chan­tha­wong, his as­sis­tant, was to take the younger boys to a soc­cer field nes­tled by the Doi Nang Non moun­tain range, a for­ma­tion with nu­mer­ous wa­ter­falls and caves that strad­dles the Thai-Myan­mar bor­der.

“Make sure you ride your bi­cy­cle be­hind them when you are trav­el­ing around, so you can keep a look­out,” he wrote in a Face­book mes­sage he shared with The Wash­ing­ton Post. Ekapol coaches the younger boys, so Nop­pa­rat told him to bring some of the boys from the older team for ad­di­tional eyes. “Take care,” he wrote. The hours that fol­lowed kicked off a chain of events that has riv­eted the world: a dra­matic search

and res­cue that found the boys alive nine days later, hud­dled on a small, muddy patch sur­rounded by flood­wa­ters. At­ten­tion has fo­cused on the only adult, 25-yearold for­mer novice monk Ekapol, and the role he has played in both their predica­ment and their sur­vival.

Ef­forts to ex­tract the boys have in­volved a swelling team of thou­sands of divers, en­gi­neers, mil­i­tary per­son­nel and vol­un­teers from all over the world — in­clud­ing Elon Musk’s SpaceX — with no clear plan in sight. Div­ing, the most prob­a­ble method, is seen as too risky for now given the boys’ lack of swim­ming ex­pe­ri­ence, pitch-black muddy wa­ters through nar­row pas­sage­ways, and the death this week of a re­tired Thai Navy SEAL who was among those ready­ing the cave for the boys’ dive. En­gi­neers have been search­ing for a way through the moun­tain’s sur­face, hop­ing to drill down and reach them within the cave, but ac­knowl­edge it could take months and al­ter the cave’s geog­ra­phy in the process.

As the rush to fig­ure out how to Ekapol Chan­tha­wong

res­cue the group con­tin­ues, some have chided Ekapol for lead­ing the team into the cave. A large warn­ing sign at the cave’s en­trance raises the risk of en­ter­ing so close to the mon­soon sea­son, they say, and he should have known bet­ter.

But for many in Thai­land, Ekapol, who left his life in the monk­hood three years ago and joined the Wild Boars as an as­sis­tant coach soon af­ter, is an al­most di­vine force, sent to pro­tect the boys as they go through this or­deal. A widely shared car­toon draw­ing of Ekapol shows him sit­ting cross-legged, as a monk does in med­i­ta­tion, with 12 lit­tle wild boars in his arms.

Ac­cord­ing to res­cue of­fi­cials, he is among the weak­est in the group, in part be­cause he gave the boys his share of the lim­ited food and wa­ter they had with them in the early days. He also taught the boys how to med­i­tate and how to con­serve as much en­ergy as pos­si­ble un­til they were found.

“If he didn’t go with them, what would have hap­pened to my child?” said the mother of Porn­chai Kham­lu­ang, one of the boys in the cave, in an in­ter­view with a Thai tele­vi­sion net­work. “When he comes out, we have to heal his heart. My dear Ek, I would never blame you.”

Ekapol was an or­phan who lost his par­ents at age 10, friends say. He then trained to be a monk but left the monastery to care for his ail­ing grand­mother in Mae Sai in north­ern Thai­land. There, he split his time be­tween work­ing as a tem­ple hand at a monastery and train­ing the newly es­tab­lished Moo Pa team. He found kin­dred spir­its in the boys, many of whom had grown up poor or were state­less eth­nic mi­nori­ties, com­mon in this bor­der area be­tween Myan­mar and Thai­land.

“He loved them more than him­self,” said Joy Kham­pai, a long­time friend of Ekapol’s who works at a cof­fee stand in the Mae Sai monastery. “He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke. He was the kind of per­son who looked af­ter him­self and who taught the kids to do the same.”

He helped Nop­pa­rat, the head coach, de­vise a sys­tem where the boys’ pas­sion for soc­cer would mo­ti­vate them to ex­cel aca­dem­i­cally. If they got cer­tain grades in school, they would be re­warded with soc­cer gear, such as fresh studs for their cleats or a new pair of shorts. The two spent time look­ing for spon­sors and used the Moo Pa team to prove to the boys that they could be­come some­thing more than their small town would sug­gest — even pro­fes­sional ath­letes.

“He gave a lot of him­self to them,” Nop­pa­rat said. He would ferry the boys to and from home when their par­ents could not and took re­spon­si­bil­ity for them as if they were his own fam­ily.

He also kept the boys on a strict train­ing sched­ule, ac­cord­ing to phys­i­cal ed­u­ca­tion teach­ers at the school field where they prac­ticed. That in­cluded bik­ing across the hills that sur­round Mae Sai.

On that Sat­ur­day two weeks ago, Nop­pa­rat did not know where Ekapol would be bring­ing the young soc­cer team but thought it would be a learn­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for him to man­age them on his own.

The older Wild Boars were hav­ing a match in the evening, he said, so he put his phone away. When he checked it at 7 p.m., there were at least 20 calls from wor­ried par­ents, none of whose sons had come home. He fran­ti­cally di­aled Ekapol and a num­ber of the boys in quick suc­ces­sion but reached only Song­pol Kan­tha­wong, a 13-year old mem­ber of the team whose mother picked him up af­ter train­ing. He told Nop­pa­rat that the team had gone ex­plor­ing in the Tham Luang caves. The coach raced up there, only to find aban­doned bi­cy­cles and bags at its en­trance and wa­ter seep­ing out the muddy path­way.

“I screamed — ‘Ek! Ek! Ek!’ ” he said. “My body went com­pletely cold.”

In­for­ma­tion had slowly started to come out about the boys’ nine­day or­deal be­fore they were even­tu­ally found on Mon­day night, through letters and lim­ited com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween the coach, the team and the res­cuers who have been with them in a small cave chamber.

The rush of eu­pho­ria that ran through the town of Mae Sai and across the world when the group was found has set­tled into a grim re­al­ity that nei­ther Ekapol nor the 12 in his care may see day­light for days or even weeks. Of­fi­cials said Sat­ur­day that they have a three- to four-day win­dow in which con­di­tions will be “most fa­vor­able” for the boys to at­tempt to dive out be­fore mon­soon rains hit and con­tinue for months.

Ur­gent con­cerns in­clude the amount of oxy­gen in the sec­tion of the cave that the group is tak­ing refuge in, which had fallen be­low healthy lev­els. Of­fi­cials are now lim­it­ing the num­ber of res­cue work­ers who can travel into the cave to re­duce the amount of car­bon diox­ide that builds when they ex­hale. Ris­ing wa­ter lev­els, too, could force a quick ex­trac­tion, but au­thor­i­ties say the boys are not ready to make the dive.

Friends, mean­while, grow wor­ried for Ekapol. He had the boys’ com­plete trust, and it is un­likely that they would have set off ex­plor­ing in the cave’s cham­bers with­out him.

“I know him, and I know he will blame him­self,” said Joy, his friend at the monastery.

On Sat­ur­day morn­ing, the Thai Navy posted photos of letters that the group had writ­ten to their fam­ily and the out­side world. Ekapol’s, scrib­bled on a yel­low­stained piece of pa­per, torn out from a note­book, was brief, but in­cluded a prom­ise and an apol­ogy.“I prom­ise to take the very best care of the kids,” he wrote. “I want to say thanks for all the sup­port, and I want to apol­o­gize.”

RUN­GROJ YONGRIT/EPA-EFE/REX/SHUT­TER­STOCK

ROYAL THAI NAVY/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP: Thai for­est rangers ex­am­ine a map dur­ing res­cue op­er­a­tions for the Moo Pa boys’ soc­cer team and their 25-year-old as­sis­tant coach, Ekapol Chan­tha­wong, on July 7. Mem­bers of the Thai Navy stand in the flooded Tham Luang cave dur­ing res­cue ef­forts. Mem­bers of the soc­cer team and Ekapol pause for a photo dur­ing a cy­cling trip. Head coach Nop­pa­rat Khan­thavong tasked the as­sis­tant coach with watch­ing the boys the day they went miss­ing.

COUR­TESY OF NOP­PA­RAT KHAN­THAVONG

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