Hundreds of volunteers and reporters burst into applause and chants of “Hooyah!” on Tuesday when the announcement was made that the final four boys and their coach had been rescued from a flooded Thai cave.
Rescue chief and former Chiang Rai governor Narongsak Osotanakorn said that the final members of the "Wild Boars" football team had safely exited Tham Luang cave, where they had been trapped for 18 days.
The children, aged from 11 to 16, and their coach, ventured into the cave in mountainous northern Thailand on June 23 after football practice and got trapped when heavy rains caused flooding that forced them to take shelter on a remote ledge deep inside the cave.
The announcement followed hours of helicopters whirring overhead, shuttling the rescued boys and their 25-year-old coach to Prachanukroh Hospital, in the nearby city of Chiang Rai.
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"We wanted to bring the nine lives out of the cave and we succeeded. The first boy came out about 3pm. All of the boys are now at the hospital,” said Mr Osotanakorn.
“An important lesson here is we succeeded in this mission because we love and support each other. Today Thai people – team Thailand – achieved the impossible mission.”
“We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what. All the 13 Wild Boars are now out of the cave,” read a post on the Facebook page of the Thai Navy Seals, who took part in the rescue.
The escape route was a challenge even for experts — one former Thai Navy Seal diver died when he ran out of oxygen in a flooded area of the cave on Friday while trying to prepare the escape route.
The successful finale to the ordeal offered much-needed relief to the families of the boys and the thousands of rescue workers, volunteers and reporters who had spent over a week trudging through mud and being battered by rain.
Volunteers from all over Thailand had converged on the muddy basecamp from which the rescue operations were launched. Hot food and cold drinks were distributed during all hours of the day to rescue workers who came out wet and exhausted after prepping the cave with compressed air tanks, rope and food for the Wild Boars’ escape.
Thai officials had described the planning process as a race against time, as monsoon rains threatened to undo the progress made by rescue workers in draining the cave of floodwater.
Air quality became another looming threat to the boys' survival. The hundreds of workers in the cave were quickly depleting its oxygen and replacing it with carbon dioxide. Had oxygen levels dropped below 12 per cent, the boys could have suffered brain damage. If carbon dioxide levels had risen too highly, this could have led to blood poisoning.
These crises were averted — dry weather and low water levels allowed the rescue operation to start on Sunday.
That morning, rescue chief Narongsak Osotanakorn announced that a team of “all-star” foreign and Thai divers had begun the 3.2 kilometre trek to the Nom Sao slope – the name given to the dry patch where the boys and their coach had spent the previous two weeks.
On Sunday night, the first four boys exited the cave and have since been undergoing tests and recovering at Prachanukroh Hospital. On Monday, divers rescued four more boys, who are recovering at the same hospital.
All the boys will remain in quarantine in hospital for at least seven days until doctors are sure they have not contracted any infections from inside the cave.
“They arrived with very low body temperatures, and one of them had a low heart rate,” Thai public health permanent secretary Dr Jesada Chokdamrongkul told reporters on Monday morning. “Doctors have treated the boys, and now all of them are okay and cheerful. They talk normally. They have no fever. We’ve started giving them medical food this morning.”
Rescue chief Osotanakorn's leadership during the rescue earned him the adoration of many Thais. Many are calling for him to be the country’s next prime minister. This seems unlikely, as he was recently shifted by the military junta from his governorship in Chiang Rai to a lesser role in neighbouring Phayao province, reportedly for refusing to play along with colleagues’ alleged corruption. “It has been our masterpiece work,” Mr Osotanakorn said about the rescue efforts.
Credit for the successful rescue has also been given to the boys and the coach themselves. Thai Tourism and Sports Minister Weerasak Kowsurat said last week: “The boys stranded in the cave aren’t just ordinary boys; they are a team, and it is a football team that has sport spirit.”
Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, tweeted out his "heartfelt congratulations" to the boys, their families, the Thai people and the leadership of the country.
Other global leaders also sent their best wishes following the successful rescue. United States President Donald Trump tweeted about the "beautiful moment" and UK Prime Minister Theresa May tweeted her delight.