Voices in the dark, then “hello”: Trapped Thai boys recount the moment they were found
CHIANG RAI, Thailand — Trapped in the recesses of a flooded cave, 12 boys and their soccer coach were trying to dig their way out when they heard voices in the darkness. The coach quickly told everyone to be quiet.
“We weren’t sure if it was for real,” said 14-year-old Adul Samon. “So we stopped and listened. And it turned out to be true.”
That stunning moment — when two British divers found the missing soccer team — was recounted by the boys Wednesday at a news conference. The boys, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach had come from a hospital where they recuperated after spending more than two weeks trapped in a cave. They all looked healthy as they walked out to applause from classmates and reporters in a hall decked out as a miniature soccer field.
Coach Ekapol “Ake” Chanthawong said the June 23 trip inside the cave after soccer practice was meant to last one hour, simply because “each of us wanted to see what was inside.” But rain began, and water soon filled the cavern, cutting off their escape.
By that time, 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. He said he had to be pulled out.
“We cannot go out this way,” Ekapol said he told the boys. “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.
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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.
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.
Chanta Jai-Ngiemthat when she first heard that her son Dom had been found, she was overcome with emotion. She first saw his face on TV when Thai officials released video of the boys alive inside the cave after nine days.
“I was crying and screaming with happiness,” she said.
She said she’s ready for things to go back to normal.
“I would like my son to have a normal life,” she said. “I would like it to be the same it was before.”
Ahead of Wednesday’s press conference, 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 — 6.5 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.
At Wednesday’s press conference, the SEALs who rescued the boys 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.
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All of the boys 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.”