A daring rescue mission in the treacherous confines of a flooded cave in northern Thailand has saved all 12 boys and their soccer coach who were trapped deep within the labyrinth, ending a grueling 18-day ordeal that claimed the life of an experienced volunteer diver and riveted people around the world.
Thailand’s Navy SEALs, who were central to the rescue effort, said on their Facebook page that the remaining four boys and their 25-year-old coach were all brought out safely Tuesday. Several hours later, a medic and three SEAL divers who had stayed for days with the boys in their tiny refuge in the cave also came out.
Eight of the boys were rescued by a team of Thai and international divers on Sunday and Monday.
“We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what. All the thirteen Wild Boars are now out of the cave,” the SEALs said, referring to the name of the boys’ soccer team. “Everyone is safe.”
The medic and three SEALs who had stayed with the boys in their dark refuge deep inside the cave complex also made it out.
Cheers erupted at a local government office where dozens of volunteers and journalists were awaiting news of whether the intricate and high-risk rescue mission had succeeded. Helicopters taking the boys to a hospital roared overhead.
People on the street cheered and clapped when ambulances ferrying the boys arrived at the hospital in Chiang Rai city.
Payap Maiming, 40, who helped provide food and necessities to rescue workers and journalists, said a “miracle” had happened.
“I’m happy for Thais all over the country, for the people of Mae Sai, and actually just everyone in the world because every news channel has presented this story and this is what we have been waiting for,” she said. Mae Sai is the district where the cave is located, in the northern part of Chiang Rai province, near the border with Myanmar.
“It’s really a miracle,” Payap said. “It’s hope and faith that has brought us this success.”
The plight of the boys and their coach has captivated Thailand and much of the world — from the heart-sinking news that they were missing to the first flickering video of the huddle of anxious yet smiling boys when they were found 10 days later by a pair of British divers. They were trapped in the Tham Luan Nang Non cave on June 23, when they were exploring it after a soccer practice and it became flooded by monsoon rains.
Each of the boys, ages 11 to 16 and with no diving experience, was guided out by a pair of divers in three days of intricate and high-stakes operations. The route, in some places just a crawl space, had oxygen canisters positioned at regular intervals to refresh each team’s air supply.
Highlighting the dangers, a former Thai navy SEAL died Friday while replenishing the canisters.
Cave diving experts had warned it was potentially too risky to dive the youngsters out.
But Thai officials, acutely aware that the boys could be trapped for months by monsoon rains that would swell waters in the cave system, seized a window of opportunity provided by relatively mild weather. A massive water pumping effort also made the winding cave more navigable. The confidence of the diving team, and expertise specific to the cave, grew after its first successful mission.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, speaking before the final rescue was completed, said the boys were given an anti-anxiety medication to help with their perilous removal from the cave.
The eight boys brought out by divers on Sunday and Monday were doing well and were in good spirits, a senior health official said. There were given a treat Tuesday: bread with chocolate spread that they’d requested.
Jedsada Chokdumrongsuk, permanent secretary at the Public Health Ministry, said the first four boys rescued were able to eat normal food, though they couldn’t yet take the spicy dishes favoured by many Thais.
Two of the boys possibly have a lung infection but all eight are generally “healthy and smiling,” he said.
“The kids are footballers so they have high immune systems,” Jedsada said. “Everyone is in high spirits and are happy to get out. But we will have a psychiatrist to evaluate them.”
It could be at least seven days before they can be released from the hospital, Jedsada told a news conference.
Family members have seen at least some of the boys from behind a glass isolation barrier.
It was clear doctors were taking a cautious approach. Jedsada said they were uncertain what type of infections the boys could face “because we have never experienced this kind of issue from a deep cave.”
If medical tests show no dangers, after another two days, parents will be able to enter the isolation area dressed in sterilized clothing and staying two metres away from the boys, said Tosthep Bunthong, a public health official.
A day by day look at the Thailand cave ordeal
June 23: After a morning practice, 12 members of the local Wild Boars youth soccer team bicycle with their 25-year-old coach to the Tham Luang Nang Non cave to explore, when heavy rains begin. When none of the boys return home after dark and cannot be contacted, parents report them as missing. Their bicycles are found parked and locked at the cave entrance as a search begins around midnight.
June 24: Search and rescue teams comprising local authorities, police and rescue workers find soccer shoes and backpacks left behind by the boys near the cave entrance.
June 25: As the search expands, handprints and footprints thought to belong to the boys are found farther from the cave entrance. Parents holding a vigil outside begin prayer sessions.
June 26: About a dozen Thai navy SEALs and others searchers penetrate the cave, but Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda tells reporters they are seriously handicapped by muddy water that has filled some chambers of the large cave to their ceilings.
June 27: More heavy rainfall stymies search efforts, flooding underground passages faster than water can be pumped out. A U.S. military team and British cave experts, along with several other private teams of foreign cavers, join the operation.
June 28: Efforts begin to drain groundwater from the cave by drilling from outside into the mountain. A search for other entrances to the cave intensifies as diving is temporarily suspended for safety reasons.
June 29: Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha visits the cave site and urges relatives of the missing not to give up hope. Efforts to drain the cave with pumps make little progress.
June 30: The effort to locate the missing picks up pace again, as a break in the rain eases flooding in the system of caverns and more experts from around the world, including Australia and China, join the rescue mission. In anticipation of finding the boys, an evacuation drill is held to practice how they will be sent to a hospital after leaving the cave.
July 1: Rescue divers advance into the main passageway inside the flooded cave and set up a staging area inside. Thai navy SEALs reach a bend where the kilometre-long passage splits in two directions.
July 2: Two expert British cave divers locate the missing boys and their coach. They record video of the boys talking with them.
July 3: The videos are released and show the boys taking turns introducing themselves, folding their hands together in a traditional Thai greeting and saying their names. The boys also say they are healthy.
July 4: Seven navy SEALs and a doctor join the boys with food and medicine. Options are discussed about whether the boys should be taken out of the cave with divers soon or kept in place until conditions improve.
July 5: The boys continue with diving lessons in case a decision is made to extract them through a route that is partially underwater. The effort to pump out water in increased.
July 6: Officials indicate that they favour extracting the boys as soon as possible, fearing further danger if they are forced to stay inside by more rain causing additional flooding. Concern increases about falling oxygen levels inside the cave. A former navy SEAL aiding the rescue effort dies from a lack of oxygen during his mission.
July 7: Officials suggest that an underwater evacuation will be made in the following few days because of predictions of a rainstorm. However, they say the boys’ diving skills are not yet where they need to be.
July 8: The official heading the rescue operation declares that “D-Day” has arrived as he announces the start of the operation to bring the boys and their coach out of the cave. Divers take four of the boys out through tight passages and flooded caverns.
July 9: Divers take four more boys to safety during the second day of the rescue operation. This leaves four boys and their coach still inside the cave.
July 10: On the third day of the rescue operation, divers bring out the remaining four boys and their coach, ending an ordeal that lasted more than two weeks.