A daring and painstaking mission to rescue 12 Thai boys and their football coach, who had been stranded in a flooded cave for 17 days, ended with ecstatic scenes of celebration as the last five were brought to safety yesterday.
Divers began the rescue at 10am local time, guiding the boys out in pairs, with the last person, the 25-year-old assistant coach, delivered to safety at about 8pm.
Jubilant Thais poured into the streets of Chiang Rai, honking car horns and taking selfies, while a world that had been gripped by the dramatic search-and-rescue mission exhaled in relief, as news arrived that the team had all been taken alive and well to hospital.
"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 on their Facebook page yesterday following the final extraction from the Tham Luang cave complex, in Chiang Rai province, in a meticulously planned and executed rescue that began on Sunday.
In a press conference at around 9.30pm yesterday local time (10.30pm Singapore time), about 90 minutes after the last person to be rescued had been taken to hospital, the head of the rescue operation, Mr Narongsak Osotthanakorn, announced the end of a successful mission that the Thai government had carefully shielded from the media glare.
"Every parent will see their sons through the glass at the hospital by tonight. This is a success," Mr Narongsak said, to cheers. "There were 12 divers working. A doctor from Australia was also in there to check everyone, and hundred others working. The first one came out before 4pm, and now all have been transported safely to the hospital."
He also said an army medic, Dr Pak Loharnshoon, who had stayed to look after the team since they were found, and three other Seal divers had come out safely.
Celebrations were in full force for the happy ending to a story that had begun in trepidation when the dozen boys of the Moo Pa (Wild Boars) Football Academy and their coach disappeared on June 23. Elation when they were found by a diver on July 2 then turned into suspense when there seemed to be no easy way to get them out of the flooded caverns.
In the week that followed, various options were discussed and discarded as a daring plan was hatched to lay a rope guide and scuba tanks along the way so that the boys could be led out one by one through the narrow tunnels.
The rescue team numbered in the hundreds, and included divers and specialists from around the world, who came as soon as they heard to lend their help.
It was a risky mission that demanded courage, and Mr Narongsak paid tribute last night to former Thai Seal Saman Kunan, who died on July 6 while working to set the tanks.
Mr Thanawut Wiboonroongruang, 35, the father of the youngest boy, Chanintr Wiboonroongruang, broke down on the phone when he confirmed to The Straits Times that his son was among the four boys rescued yesterday. "My son is safe now," Mr Thanawut said, choking up as he waited in the hospital. "I want to thank everyone, the volunteers, the governor, the army, the police and the King. I am very proud of coach Ake (assistant coach Ekkapol Chantawong), who has sacrificed from the first day until the last day. All parents will hug him when we meet him."
Mr Narongsak ended the press conference with an emotional call to all Thais to keep the unity of the past 17 days. "People who washed clothes for the Seal unit. People who brought up noodles to the rescue base. People who picked up trash in the area. All Thais will remember this, and this should be a lesson in how Thailand should move forward in the future."
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