#Hooyah! Thais rejoice at success of dramatic cave rescue

Volunteers celebrate at a makeshift press centre in Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province on July 10, 2018, after the 12 boys and their football coach were rescued.
Volunteers celebrate at a makeshift press centre in Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province on July 10, 2018, after the 12 boys and their football coach were rescued.PHOTO: AFP

CHIANG RAI, THAILAND (AFP) - Thailand celebrated the successful mission to free 12 boys and their football coach from a cave on Wednesday (July 11), with the nation heaping praise on the rescue team as the triumphant tagline "Hooyah" pinballed across social media.

The nerve-shredding three-day mission ended on Tuesday with the final group of four boys and the coach emerging from the cave which had held them captive for 18 days.

The rescue received blanket coverage in Thai media, with The Nation running the headline "Hooyah! Mission accomplished" and the Bangkok Post emblazoned with "All Wild Boars saved".

Despite spending days in the dark, dank cave, the boys - aged 11 to 16 - are in good physical and mental health and eating normal food, said health officials.

"It might be because they were all together as a team, helping one another out," public health ministry inspector-general Thongchai Lertwilairatanapong told reporters, singling out their 25-year-old coach for keeping their spirits high.

The group remains in quarantine in a Chiang Rai hospital where one of the last batch of people to leave the cave has "lung conditions", he said.

Some of the first boys to be freed have been able to see their parents, he added.

The saga of the "Wild Boars" gripped the world, with the lives of the group hanging in the balance as the threat of heavy rain injected urgency to an already perilous extraction bid.

On Wednesday, a few hundred Thai schoolchildren gathered opposite the hospital, chanting thanks to those who helped and looking up at the building that will be home to the rescued football team for the coming days.

Elsewhere, Duangduen Sittiwongsa, a classmate of 16-year-old Pheeraphat "Night" Sompiengjai, whose birthday fell on the same day the team entered the cave, said they would give him cake and gifts when he returned to school.

"We will sing a song for him," she said.

Risky rescue

Rescuers had weighed several options to save the boys, including keeping them in the cave through the months-long monsoon season.

But they were prodded into the dangerous task of "diving out" the team through submerged chambers and claustrophobic passages as oxygen levels in the cave plummeted and rain menaced.

The group was led out in three batches by a team of 13 international divers flanked by Thai Navy Seals, who greeted each successful rescue with a "Hooyah" on their Facebook page.

That sign-off quickly turned into a hashtag shared across social media, where luminaries of business, politics and sport extended their best wishes to the team and the rescuers.

The authorities have shrouded the details of the rescue bid in secrecy, with fragments of information emerging about the heroic efforts of the dive team.

The dangers of the rescue were brought into sharp relief last Friday by the death of a retired Thai Navy Seal as he ran out of air in the flooded cave complex as extraction plans were being laid.

"I'm very happy and relieved. I haven't been able to sleep for days. I'm happy that the boys are out too," said Khamluh Guntawong, the grandfather of team coach Ekkapol Chantawong.

"He really cares for the boys," he added, of a figure who is emerging as something of a hero for shepherding the children through their ordeal.

The group became trapped in rising flood waters and were found nine days later emaciated and dishevelled on a muddy ledge, with water lapping ominously below.

The saga captivated a global audience for more than two weeks, rewarding them with a remarkable happy ending.

French football star Paul Pogba dedicated his country's World Cup semi-final victory over Belgium to "the heroes of the day, well done boys, you are so strong".