MAE SAI, Thailand (TNS) — A drama that began on June 23 for 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach ended Tuesday evening when the last five of the group were taken from a flooded cave in northern Thailand, triggering joy and celebration across the country.
The Thai Navy SEALs confirmed that all four boys and the coach were safe.
The rescue was a triumphant close to an audacious operation, ushering children equipped with diving gear — some of the boys had to be taught to swim — through a dangerous tunnel system that would challenge the most experienced cave divers.
Rescue experts and divers from around the world took part in the carefully-planned operation, with each boy flanked by two rescue divers on the way to the surface.
Coach Ekapol Chantawong, 25, who earlier apologized to families in a note for his role leading the children into the caves so close to the monsoon season, was among the last to leave.
The critical point of the rescue was a very narrow section with a turn, known as T-junction, perilous to navigate even for expert cave divers.
Tuesday's rescue was the most challenging yet. Instead of the four boys saved in the missions Sunday and Monday, the final rescue attempt had to extract five of the trapped group, an army doctor and three navy SEALs who had stayed underground with the stranded group.
"We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what. All the 13 Wild Boars are now out of the cave," the Thai Navy Seals posted after the rescue effort, using the name of the boys' soccer club.
Leaders around the world praised the efforts of Thai rescuers and their international helpers. President Donald Trump tweeted that it was "a beautiful moment," adding "great job."
Manchester United soccer club invited the boys to visit the club, after news the boys would not be able to accept an invitation from FIFA to attend the soccer World Cup final because they would still be in hospital. But FIFA expressed "great joy" over news of the rescue.
The boys were taken by ambulance and helicopter to a hospital after they came out of the caves.
Rescue mission chief Narongsak Osotthanakorn said 19 divers entered the caves at 10:08 a.m. local time to begin the rescue effort for the final four members of the soccer team and their assistant coach.
The first of those rescued Tuesday emerged at 4:06 p.m. according to the Thai Navy SEALs Facebook page, which confirmed the news with an exuberant "Hooyah!" That suggested a round trip of six hours to bring out the first child.
By 6:48 p.m., confirmation came that all the boys and their coach had been rescued.
Naronsak said Monday the final decision on whether to bring all five out of the cave would be made by diving teams.
"If there are no abnormal factors, all five will come out today," he said Tuesday. The doctor and three SEALs were also being brought out. "We are ready to perform the operation today perfectly," he said.
"The mission today is more difficult than in the past two days, all nine to be brought out. Everyone, please give us moral support," Narongsak said, raising applause at a morning news briefing crammed with international reporters.
A downpour that began overnight and continued steadily Tuesday underscored the risks, as divers entered the cave complex in a race against torrential rains that could last until October. Pumping continued in a bid to prevent the water levels from rising.
Narongsak said despite the rain, water levels in the cave remained stable, with rescuers facing similar conditions.
"The water level inside the cave is the same as yesterday and the day before," he said.
Thai people across the nation breathlessly followed live updates on television, as memes flooded social media portraying the team — the Wild Boars — as baby wild boars and their deputy coach Ekapol Chantawong, 25, as a hero.
As hopes rose that all five would be rescued, the Thai navy SEAL Facebook page posted an optimistic prediction: "Today is 10 July 2018. It will be longer than previous ones. We will celebrate together finally. Hooyah!"
As news emerged that the 11th boy had surfaced and the 12th had passed the most treacherous part of the rescue, the SEALs declared, "Tonight, all the "Wild Boars" will be reunited again!"
Because of the additional numbers coming to the surface, the rescue was expected to take longer than the earlier two efforts. Conditions in the caves were treacherous, with limited visibility in muddy waters, jagged rock and tight tunnels with sharp turns.
Underscoring the hazards involved, a former Thai navy SEAL, Saman Kunan, died last week during rescue preparations when he ran out of oxygen. He has been hailed as a hero in Thailand and internationally.
The first eight boys to be rescued Sunday and Monday were being treated in a hospital and were age 12 to 16, according to doctors.
Ekapol, the coach, was among the last in the cave, along with an 11-year-old — the youngest member of the soccer team.
The team became trapped when they went exploring with Ekapol in the Tham Luang Nang Non caves near the Myanmar border after soccer practice June 23. Torrential rain flooded the cave, blocking their exit and forcing them deep into the cave network.
Apart from coughs and scratches, the first eight boys rescued were in surprisingly good health. Doctors announced Tuesday that two were being treated for minor lung infections. The boys' core temperatures were very low when they emerged from the cave, after the long and arduous dive, doctors said.
One of those who emerged Monday had a low body temperature and low heart rate, but had been given medication and had recovered, according to public health official Dr. Jesada Chokedamrongsuk.
So far the boys have not been able to hug their parents due to the risk of infection, but the first four rescued were allowed to see them through a glass partition Tuesday. In two days, the families of the first group will be able to enter their rooms wearing hospital masks but will have to stay at least 6 feet away.
"After we are confident there is no infection, we will allow them to meet them normally," he said.
Jesada said the boys underwent a series of X-rays and medical tests and will be kept in the hospital for at least a week because of the risk of infection. The first four, rescued Sunday, are allowed normal but bland meals, but those rescued Monday were given easily-digested food.
"The boys are frequently hungry because their bodies need food," he said. "They are athletes, so their bodies resist illness well."
The first four rescued had asked for bread and chocolate spread Tuesday morning, he said. The boys were brought out blindfolded to protect their eyes after weeks in the darkness and initially had to wear sunglasses.
According to the doctor, the boys were cheerful and talkative. The first words of some of the boys on reaching the hospital were that they missed their families and were happy to be out of the caves, he said.
It was not clear what criteria were used to decide which boys came first — the strongest, those who mastered breathing with diving gear more swiftly or the most vulnerable.
The boys became trapped by rising waters on June 23, forcing them to retreat further into the cave system. Their bicycles were spotted outside the Tham Luang Nang Non caves.
It was nine days before the boys were discovered by two British divers on a muddy ledge, deeper in the cave complex than expected.
At first Thai authorities feared the boys and coach would have to stay underground until the end of the monsoon, months away, because of the dangers inherent in the rescue. Efforts to find an alternative entrance into the cave failed. Plans to try to drill into the caves were abandoned since the exact location of the trapped boys was not known.
Cave diving experts, engineers, medical and military personnel from around the world flew in to help the rescue effort, including 30 U.S. Air Force rescue divers.
SpaceX CEO Elon Musk tweeted that he had visited the command base set up in Chamber 3 of the cave to deliver a "kid-size submarine" fashioned from rocket parts, named Wild Boar after the team. He posted a photo of the interior of the cave.
But Narongsak said Tuesday Musk's mini-submarine was "impractical" for the rescue mission and would not be used.
"Though their equipment is technologically complex, it is not practical for our operation inside the cave."
Thai Prime Minister Prayat Chan-o-cha said the boys were sedated with anti-anxiety medication to prevent them panicking on the journey through the tunnels.
He said Tuesday the cave complex would be closed to the public for some time after the rescue to prevent a repeat of the crisis. Once reopened, it would be monitored constantly.
Sasiwan Mokkasen contributed to this report.