The 12 Thai boys and their football coach rescued from a flooded Thai cave smiled and waved yesterday in their first public appearance since their ordeal gripped the attention of the world.
The dramatic search and rescue involved thousands of people, including an international team of specialist cave divers.
In a carefully choreographed media conference, the Wild Boars football team appeared well and in good spirits after more than a week recovering in hospital. They wore black shorts and T-shirts emblazoned with a red image of a wild boar.
Friends greeted and hugged them after the young players demonstrated their football skills in front of the stage at a packed community hall in Chiang Rai, in northern Thailand.
Doctors and nurses, as well as the Thai navy Seals who stayed with them deep inside the cave following their discovery 10 days after their disappearance, were also present.
Media questions were screened by psychiatrists, who feared intense public interest could harm the mental and physical recovery of the boys, aged 11 to 16, and their assistant coach, 25.
When we were trapped inside, I immediately thought, 'I am going to get scolded.'
ONE OF THE RESCUED BOYS, who added that he felt he "deserved it".
During the press conference, the team recounted their ordeal and the intense feeling of relief when they were found by British divers.
Many of them apologised for not telling their parents that they would be going into a cave, saying they were only going for football practice. "When we were trapped inside, I immediately thought, 'I am going to get scolded,' " said one boy. When asked if he thought he deserved it, the boy said: "Yes."
The group had planned to explore the cave for about an hour after football practice on June 23. "We went into the cave because everyone wanted to see it. Personally, I have been there, but some had not been there before," said coach Ekkapol Chantawong. They did not carry any food or water with them.
Water levels increased inside the cave within less than an hour after the team entered, said the coach. "We realised that we were stranded. So, we decided to dig the wall of the cave to get out, so that at least we were doing something to try to get out."
When the British divers found the team, the coach directed one of the boys to help translate.
Everyone was happy to hear the (British diver's) voice, said one of the boys. It was the first glimmer of hope, they said.
Adul Sam-on, 14, who helped translate for the British divers, said of their discovery: "It was magical."
The team paid special tribute to the former Thai navy Seal who died during the rescue operation. They presented a framed drawing of Mr Saman Gunan with handwritten messages.
"We would like to present our condolences to his family. We hope that he will sleep well and is in a good place. We thank him from the bottom of our hearts."
In a gesture of gratitude, the boys will ordain as Buddhist monks in honour of Mr Saman, the coach said. He added that he was grateful to everyone. "I will be more careful next time," he said.
When asked what they had learnt from the episode, one of the boys said: "I have learnt a lot from this experience. I want to be a good person for society."
Another said the experience has taught him to be stronger and not give up.
Several of the boys also said they would like to become professional navy Seal divers after the experience, to applause from the audience. "I would like to help people," said one boy.
Most of them also said they want to become professional footballers in the future.
The boys have gained 3kg each on average since the rescue, and had confidence-building exercises ahead of the press conference, said hospital director Chaiwetch Thanapaisal.
"We don't know what wounds the kids are carrying in their hearts," said Justice Ministry official Tawatchai Thaikaew, who asked for the boys' privacy to be respected after their discharge.
As the press conference ended, vehicles were waiting outside the hall to take the team members home to their families, almost a month after they disappeared.