Cave trek supposed to last an hour
Monsoons turned journey into life-and-death struggle
CHIANG RAI, Thailand — The boys meant to explore the cave for just an hour, a casual jaunt to relax after soccer practice, but the waters rose.
The teammates climbed higher, using their hands to feel the walls for a crawl space that would lead to safer, higher ground.
Those handprints were among the first signs of where the boys were, what they had done to escape the floods, and what dangers rescuers would face in their mission to save the boys and their coach.
The boys now recuperating. The hospital in northern Thailand where the 12 boys and their soccer coach are quarantined said Friday they’re basically healthy, aside from some minor infections.
A psychiatrist said their mental state seems fine.
Family members, first able to reunite with them only through a glass window, now can meet face-to-face though still not touch, to ensure any illnesses don’t spread.
Banphot Konkum, father of 13-year-old Duangpetch Promthep, told The Associated Press his son — better known by his nickname, Dom — said the team members didn’t know rain had started falling after they had entered the cave on June 23.
But the rain caused flooding in the cave, blocking their escape.
“After an hour when they wanted to leave, the water level was rising. They ran further inside the cave to escape from the water. The water flow was strong,” said Banphot.
In their search for a safe haven, the boys were reported to have used their hands to feel the walls for an opening to take them to a higher, safer spot.
Searchers later found what they thought were the boys’ handprints, giving them confidence the boys were alive and that the searchers were on the right path.
“They, all 13 of them, saw a small passage or a crawl space, so they all dug the hole to get through to another spot, until they found Nen Nom Sao,” Banphot said, referring to the sandy slope on which they ended up sheltering.
There was nowhere else to go.
The mother of the youngest Wild Boar teammate, 11-year old Chanin Wiboonrungruang, told a Bangkok newspaper that her son told her the team didn’t make a special point of bringing along food since they were only planning a short trek into the cave.
“After the first three nights with no food in the cave, my son felt extreme hunger and cried,” Aikhan told the Bangkok Post. “He had to rely only on water dripping from the rock. It was very cold at night and pitch dark. They had to lie huddled together.
She said her son, nicknamed Tun, said the boys’ 25-year-old soccer coach, Ekapol “Ake” Chanthawong, told them to meditate to ease their hunger and save their energy.
One of the two British divers who found the group said the rescue operation was “completely uncharted, unprecedented territory,” and that he hadn’t been certain the boys would be found alive.
“Nothing like this has been done,” Rick Stanton said at a news conference Friday at London’s Heathrow airport after returning from Thailand.
Recalling the moment on July 2 when he and diving partner John Volanthen found the boys on their 10th day inside the cave, he said his initial reaction was “of course, excitement, relief that they were still alive.”
“As they were coming down the slope we were counting them ’til we got to 13. Unbelievable,” he said. “They looked in good health, but of course when we departed all we could think about was how we were going to get them out. And so there was relief tempered with uncertainty.”
Thai boys are upbeat as they await rescue from a flooded cave network earlier this month. AP FILES