By TASSANEE VEJPONGSA and KAWEEWIT KAEWJINDA, Associated Press
CHIANG RAI, Thailand (AP) — Trapped in the recesses of a flooded cave in northern Thailand, 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,” said 14-year-old Adul Samon. “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.
The group, looking healthy after recuperating at a hospital, entered to applause from reporters and classmates and put on a quick demonstration of their ball-handling skills on a miniature soccer field set up in the hall where they met journalists from around the world.
The boys — dressed in green and white uniforms with a red wild boar, their team’s nickname — then hugged their friends before taking seats up front with doctors and members of the Thai navy SEAL unit that helped rescue them. Others who helped them during their ordeal, which ended after more than two weeks when they were brought out of the cave last week, were also there.
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.
The boys, whose ages range from 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach answered questions submitted by the media, including about the lessons they learned during their experience.
“I feel stronger, I have more patience, endurance, tolerance,” said 13-year-old Mongkol Boonpiam.
Adul said, “This experience teaches me not to live life carelessly.”
Several said they want to become professional soccer players, while four said they want to emulate the heroes who saved them.
“I want to be a navy SEAL because I want to help others,” said one.
All said they want to apologize to their parents, most of whom they had not informed in advance about the trek to the cave after soccer practice.
“I know my mom is going to punish me and I am in big trouble with my mother,” one of the boys said when asked what he expected to happen when he got home.
Doctors said the 13 were healthy in body and mind. They said the boys gained around 3 kilograms (6.6 pounds) on average since they were rescued from the cave. They were said to have lost an average of 4 kilograms (9 pounds) during the more than two weeks they were trapped in the cave.
The news conference was the first opportunity the members of the team had to speak directly to the media, though video of them in the hospital was released previously. Officials reviewed questions in advance to make certain none might cause damaging psychological effects.
The Wild Boars teammates had entered the Tham Luang cave on June 23 for what was to be a quick, relaxing excursion after soccer practice. But rain began falling while they were underground, and water filled the caverns, cutting off their escape.
The British divers found the group huddling on a spot of dry ground deep inside the cave on July 2, hungry but generally healthy. An international team of rescuers using diving equipment and pulleys extracted the 12 boys and their coach through the tight, flooded passageways in three separate missions last week.
Some of the boys were treated for minor infections during their hospital stay, but all 13 have been described as recovering well.
Following Wednesday’s news conference, about 30 relatives gathered at 13-year-old Duangpetch Promthep’s house to welcome him home, clapping their hands and cheering.
Banphot Konkum, an uncle who has raised Duangpetch, was teary-eyed as he hugged his nephew.
Earlier Wednesday, Banphot said he would have a renovated bedroom and gifts awaiting him.
“We’ll do whatever he wants,” he 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.”
[Feature image: AP Photo/Vincent Thian]