International desk, July 18: The 12 boys rescued from a flooded cave in northern Thailand last week have spoken publicly of their ordeal for the first time, describing the “moment of miracle” when divers found them.Adul Sam-on, 14, the only member of the group who speaks English, told reporters he could only say “hello” when the British divers surfaced.
The boys were trapped in the Tham Luang caves for more than two weeks.
They left hospital earlier on Wednesday and are on their way home.
The 12, who are members of a junior football team, the Wild Boars, appeared in their club’s kit at a news conference in Chiang Rai.
They were greeted by a banner that read “Bringing the Wild Boars Home” on a stage designed to look like a football pitch.
The boys sat alongside members of the Thai Navy Seals who helped rescue them.
One boy described how they had lived on water from the stones of the cave. “Water is clean,” he said. “Only water, no food.”
Chanin “Titan” Wibrunrungrueang, 11, said: “I tried not to think about food because it would make me hungry.”
The boys went missing on 23 June and were found by divers on 2 July. Navy Seals then brought them food and other supplies.
The group described how they bonded with their rescuers over more than a week, until their final rescue.
“We played draughts (checkers),” Titan said. “(Navy Seal) Baitoey always won and he was the king of cave.”
The team’s coach, Ekapol Chantawong, who was rescued with them, paid tribute to Saman Kunan, a Navy Seal who died during the operation.
“We are impressed that Saman sacrificed his life to save us so that we could go and live our lives. Once we heard the news, we were shocked,” he said. “We were very sad. We felt like… we caused sadness to his family.”
Some boys said they would learn from their ordeal. One promised to be “more careful and live my life the fullest”. Another said: “This experience taught me to be more patient and strong.”
The boys are due to be ordained as Buddhist monks for a short period of time, a tradition for males in Thailand who have experienced a misfortune.
Chiang Rai’s provincial governor, Prachon Pratsukan, said this would be the boys’ “only official media interview”, saying that there would “be no more speaking with the press after this”.
“We want the kids to live their normal lives without having any disturbance,” a psychiatrist told reporters.
They entered the Tham Luang cave in the northern district of Chiang Rai during an excursion with their coach.
Nine days passed before the boys were found by two British rescue divers.
But elation quickly turned to concern as it became clear just how difficult it would be to rescue boys weakened by their time underground with no food.
The dangers of the journey were underscored by the death of the ex-Thai Navy Seal diver.
A team of expert divers guided the boys and their coach through darkness and submerged passageways towards the mouth of the cave system.
Each boy was accompanied by a diver who also carried his air supply. The boys wore full-face masks, which are easier for novice divers than traditional respirators.
Sources in the rescue operation, including divers who took part, told the BBC that the boys were heavily sedated ahead of the rescue to prevent them panicking in the dark, tight, underwater passageways.
Getting to and from the trapped group was an exhausting round trip, even for experienced divers. The process involved a mixture of walking, wading, climbing and diving along guide ropes.
The boys and their coach were rescued in three stages over three days.