Jane Onyanga-Omara and John Bacon, USA TODAY ~~
MAE SAI, Thailand – The last four boys and their coach were freed from a cave in northern Thailand on Tuesday (July 10), the third day of a harrowing and heroic rescue operation that brought the young Wild Boars footballers out of a winding, flooded cavern where they were trapped for more than two weeks.
“Twelve Wild Boars and coach are out of the cave. Everyone safe,” the Thai navy SEALs, who led the rescue effort, posted on Facebook. “Hooyah.”
Calling the rescue effort “17 days that will be remembered forever,” acting Chiang Rai Gov. Narongsak Osottanakorn announced that all members of the team, as well as three SEALs and a medic who were staying with them, had safely left the cave and were healthy.
“We did what no one ever thought we could do,” he said. “This was a mission impossible that we have accomplished.”
Narongsak credited the teamwork of all the local and international rescue personnel, volunteers and agencies that took part in the massive operation and said there was a lesson to be learned for Thailand and the world.
“I believe we have a special power: love,” he said. “We love each other. We sent love into the cave. This is the lesson I want Thailand to remember, this is the lesson I want the world to see.”
The first four boys were removed from the cave Sunday (July 8). Four more were extracted Monday. All the rescued boys and their coach were taken to a hospital in the nearby city of Chiang Rai.
Jubilation swept through the area as news of the final evacuations spread. Roaring cheers greeted the helicopters flying overhead carrying the kids and their coach to a hospital 35 miles away.
“I feel like it happened so fast,” said Suparat Chaiwong, a 22-year-old nursing student who was delivering donated food and supplies to rescue workers. “We were so scared and worried. Now I’m just very happy for the kids and their families and everyone involved in the rescue.”
Others said they appreciated how the rescue effort brought so many people together to help, both locally and from all over the globe.
“I’m proud that so many people came together,” said Wimon Phacharoen, a volunteer with the Red Cross Society. “I want to thank everybody who came from around the world to help the kids.”
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha tamped down buzz that the boys had been drugged for the journey out of the cave. “Who the hell would give that to a kid?” he told the Bangkok Post. He then acknowledged that the boys were given “something to make them not too nervous and panic.”
Torrential rain fell overnight and through the morning in the area of the Tham Luang cave complex, where the Wild Boars youth soccer team had been stranded on June 23. Some players and an assistant coach were exploring the caves when heavy rains flooded parts of the vast cave, trapping them more than two miles from the entrance.
Rescuers had been racing against time because monsoon rains were expected to kick up this week.
Nineteen rescue divers were taking part in the operation Tuesday, which had been expected to move more quickly than in the previous two days. It took 11 hours on Sunday to retrieve the first four boys, and nine hours to retrieve another four on Monday.
The first four boys, ages 14-16, had low body temperatures and two were diagnosed with lung infections, Jesada Chokdamrongsuk, Thailand’s permanent secretary for health, told reporters at Chiang Rai Prachanukroh Hospital, according to the Bangkok Post.
The second group of four rescued Monday, 12-14, also had low body temperatures and one had an irregular heartbeat, but by Tuesday morning all four boys were normal, Jesada said.
“The kids are footballers so they have high immune systems,” Jesada said. “Everyone is in high spirits and are happy to get out. But we will have a psychiatrist to evaluate them.”
The rescued boys are still being held in quarantine while lab tests are being done and have not been able to have direct contact with their parents yet. Parents of the first group of four were able to meet their children through a glass partition, Jesada said.
It could be at least seven days before they can be released from hospital, Jesada told reporters.
President Donald J Trump tweeted, “On behalf of the United States, congratulations to the Thai Navy SEALs and all on the successful rescue of the 12 boys and their coach from the treacherous cave in Thailand. Such a beautiful moment – all freed, great job!
SpaceX and Tesla chief executive Elon Musk said he went to the cave with a miniature submarine to try and help the boys.
“Just returned from Cave 3. Mini-sub is ready if needed. It is made of rocket parts & named Wild Boar after kids’ soccer team. Leaving here in case it may be useful in the future,” he tweeted Monday.
Even after completing the dark, treacherous journey from the depths of Tham Luang cave to safety, the rescued members of the Wild Boars football squad face additional barriers to resuming their normal lives.
Before the boys can enjoy a warm embrace with their relatives, doctors must be confident they will not make anyone ill.
Thongchai Lertwilairattanapong, a Thai health department official, told the news site Kom Chad Luek there would be “no hugging or touching” until blood tests proved the boys were free of infections. He named leptospirosis and meliodosis – bacterial infections that can be transmitted through soil or water – as possible risks.
Hugh Montgomery, a professor of intensive care medicine at University College London, said caves presented a risk of tick-borne relapsing fever as well as histoplasmosis, a fungal lung infection commonly known as “cave disease”.
The policy of separation between the boys and their loved ones marks a departure from the initial plan described to the Guardian by a member of the mental health crisis assessment and treatment team at the rescue site. The original plan was to arrange for at least one parent to accompany each boy in an ambulance on the way to Chiang Rai’s Prachanukroh hospital.
Dr Andrea Danese, a child psychiatrist at King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, said a parent’s presence in these first few moments of freedom would be an important first step towards a healthy reintegration.
“After a long time spent underground, the boys will be tired, possibly mildly confused – almost as if they were jet-lagged – and likely quite emotional,” he said. “Bringing them together with a parent will certainly be a positive experience.”
These comforts will have to be delayed, despite the fact that none of the infections mentioned by doctors is transmittable between people. At a press briefing on Monday evening, Narongsak Osatanakorn, the head of the joint command centre coordinating the operation, declined to tell reporters whether any of the boys had been reunited with their relatives.
Since the first rescue operation was launched, there has been a strict policy against releasing the names of any of the boys who have come out of the cave. Instead they have each been referred to as “Wild Boar” and assigned a number. On Monday morning Osatanakorn chastised a Thai news outlet for publishing the names of the first four boys.
“It is doctor-patient confidentiality, so we couldn’t name them,” he said during a press briefing. “Some of you have disclosed it. What you should realise is that it affected the parents of those who are still inside.”
Banyong Suwanpong, a member of the ethics committee of the Thai Journalist Association, wrote in a Facebook post: “Using a code instead of naming them is to protect children’s rights and to avoid the ethical issues especially when the society is closely monitoring the press.”
The policy is unusual for a story of global interest, especially since the names of those who were trapped are already known. However, this is common in Thailand, where media are traditionally very careful with the identities of children. In cases of crimes involving children, especially when they are the victims, names are often omitted.
In the case of the Wild Boars, though, hiding identities goes beyond tradition. The boys who have exited the cave over the past two days are entering a new world where millions of people want information from them. By keeping their names secret, even temporarily, the joint command centre is giving the boys one additional layer of protection from the threat of trauma.
Dr Thornnin Kongsuk, the director of Suan Prung hospital in Chiang Mai, where the boys will receive checkups in the months following their rescue from the cave, said he supported the policy.
“I’m concerned that the media won’t stop interviewing them and reminding them of this event in their lives,” he told Kom Chad Luek. “If the boys and coach view being trapped in a cave as a test of their bravery or as an adventure, that will be fine. But if they [are forced to] remember it as torture, their mental health will suffer.”
Loved ones sent letters to the 12 boys and their soccer coach who were trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand. The boys wrote back with messages of hope and plenty of “I love you’s.”
Contributing: John Bacon, USA TODAY; The Associated Press