By Tassance Vejpongsa and Kaweewit Kaewjinda
CHIANG RAI, Thailand (AP) — Trapped in the recesses of a flooded cave, the 12 boys and their soccer coach were trying to dig their way out when they heard voices in the darkness. Their coach quickly told everyone to be quiet.
“We weren’t sure if it was for real,” 14-year-old Adul Samon said. “So we stopped and listened. And it turned out to be true. I was shocked.”
That stunning moment when two British divers found the missing soccer team was recounted by the boys Wednesday at their first news conference since the rescue that riveted the world.
They all looked healthy as they walked out to applause from classmates and reporters in a hall decked out as a miniature soccer field. Dressed in green, white and black uniforms emblazoned with a red wild boar — the nickname of their team — the boys briefly showed off their ball-handling skills before answering questions that were reviewed in advance.
The boys, aged 11-16, and their 25-year-old coach had come from the hospital where they have been recuperating for more than a week. They hugged their friends before taking seats up front with doctors and members of the Thai navy SEAL unit that rescued them from the Tham Luang cave after more than two weeks inside.
Each member of the Wild Boars stood and introduced himself by name and position. The SEALs also were introduced, but they used pseudonyms and wore baseball caps and sunglasses to cloak their identities for security reasons.
In one poignant and emotional moment, a portrait was displayed of Saman Gunan, the former Thai navy SEAL diver who died in the rescue attempt, and the team members showed their gratitude and respect for him. One of the boys, Chanin Vibulrungruang, covered his eyes as if wiping away a tear.
Adul was the logical choice to tell how the British divers discovered them because it was he who had greeted the divers in English in the murky video on July 2 that was seen around the world.
The Wild Boars had entered the cave on June 23 for what was to be a relaxing excursion after soccer practice. But rain began, and water soon filled the cavern, cutting off their escape, and they huddled on a patch of dry ground deep inside the cave.
Coach Ekapol “Ake” Chanthawong said the trip was meant to last one hour, simply because “each of us wanted to see what was inside.”
When the hour was up, they were pretty deep inside and already had swum through some flooded areas in the spirit of adventure. But in turning back, he discovered the way was not at all clear, and he swam ahead to scout the route, attaching a rope to himself so the boys could pull him back if necessary.
He said he had to be pulled out.
Ekapol said he told the boys: “We cannot go out this way. We have to find another way.”
The boys told reporters of their reactions at that point.
“I felt scared. I was afraid I wouldn’t get to go home and my mom would scold me, said Mongkol Boonpiam, 13, prompting laughter.
Ekarat Wongsukchan, 14, said they decided “to calm ourselves first, to try to fix the problem and find a way out. Be calm and not shocked.”
The group had taken no food with them and survived by drinking water that dripped from the cave walls, Ekapol said, adding that all the boys knew how to swim, which had been a concern for rescuers.
Adul said they were digging around the spot when they heard the voices and Ekapol called for silence.
He recounted how Ekapol told them to “‘quickly get down there, that’s the sound of a person, or else they’re going to pass on by,’ something like that.”
But he said his teammate holding the flashlight was scared, so Adul told him “If you’re not going to go, then I’ll go.”
“So I quickly took the flashlight, and quickly went down, and I greeted them, ‘hello,'” Adul added.
Psychologists had vetted the journalists’ questions in advance to avoid bringing up any aspects of the rescue that might disturb them. The dangers of the complicated operation, in which the boys were extracted in three separate missions with diving equipment and pulleys through the tight passageways, were not discussed.
Doctors said the 13 were physically and mentally healthy. Although they lost an average of 4 kilograms (9 pounds) during the more than two weeks they were trapped in the cave, they have since gained about 3 kilograms (6 1/2 pounds) on average since their rescue. They were treated for minor infections.
Asked what he had learned from their experience, 13-year-old Mongkol Boonpiam said he felt stronger. “I have more patience, endurance, tolerance,” he said.
Adul said it had taught him “not to live life carelessly.”
While many of the boys wanted to be pro soccer players when they grow up, at least four of them said they hope to become navy SEALs, so they could help others.
All expressed their apologies to their families.
“I wanted to apologize to my parents. I know that I will get yelled at by mom when I get home,” said Pornchai Kamluang, 16.
Ekarat said sheepishly he wanted to apologize to his parents because while he told them he was going to a cave, he told them the wrong one.
“I told them I was going to Tham Khun Nam,” he said. “I didn’t tell them I went to Tham Luang. So I was wondering how they found us at the right cave.”
Following the news conference, about 30 relatives gathered at the home of 13-year-old Duangpetch Promthep to welcome him back, clapping their hands and cheering.
Banphot Konkum, an uncle who has raised him, was teary-eyed and gave him a big hug.
“We’ll do whatever he wants,” Banphot said. “If he wants anything, we’ll buy it for him as a present, as we promised that when he gets out. Whatever he wants we’ll do it for him.”
© 2018, Newspaper Staff. All rights reserved.