MAE SAI, THAILAND (AFP) - In order to celebrate a teammate's 16th birthday, 12 boys of a soccer team chipped in to buy snacks to take down to a cave in a remote area in northern Thailand.
It was probably those snacks that helped keep them alive after heavy rains flooded the Tham Luang cave, trapping them and their assistant coach underground for more than a week.
The boys, aged between 11 and 16, were found late Monday (July 2) huddled in the dark on a muddy bank, flood waters ominously beneath them.
It was meant to be very different, says the sister of one of the footballers, Pheeraphat Sompiengjai, who goes by the nickname "Night". He joined the football team "Wild Boars" about a year ago and played in goal.
His family had prepared a birthday cake, grilled pork and dessert as birthday treat for Pheeraphat on June 23.
"We prepared dinner to celebrate and some relatives came to join," said the sister Phunphatsa.
"The cake is in the fridge. I kept it there to surprise him."
As the hours passed they knew something was wrong.
"He never missed any time he was supposed to be home," his sister told AFP.
Instead of heading straight home after football practice, the teenager joined his 11 teammates and their 25-year-old coach to walk into the Tham Luang cave.
The boys chipped in to buy snacks to take down to the cave to mark his birthday, relatives at Night's village of Vieng Hom said on Wednesday (July 4).
They speculated it was those snacks that sustained them during their ordeal.
Their village, abutted by rice fields and framed by northern Thailand's dramatic mountains, is also home to three of the other boys trapped in the cave.
Night's sister said her brother and the three boys from the same village would gather at their house nearly every day before going out to play.
It may be days, weeks or even months before they can resume their normal routines.
"I feel it's a long time (to wait)... but it's okay if it makes him safe," Phunphatsa said, adding that without him, "the house is quiet".
The group still languish inside the cave's 10 kilometre-long passages, with floods blocking their exit, but are now under the care of Thai navy divers and medics.
Local media reported that the trapped footballers have been given their first meal of grilled pork and sticky rice, accompanied with milk.
The distress was eased a little on Wednesday, when fresh video released by the navy showed the team smiling and looking markedly healthier than when they were found two days ago.
"He said: 'Hello, I am Night. I'm fine.'" Night's mother Supaluk told AFP.
"It's very good to see he is safe. I know he will be okay."