Mae Sai, Thailand (AP) – As ecstatic relatives watched and waved from behind a glass barrier, the 12 boys and their soccer coach rescued from deep within a flooded cave in Thailand made the V-for-Victory sign from their beds in a hospital isolation ward where they were recovering from the 18-day ordeal.
The boys, their faces covered by green surgical masks, flashed the V-for-Victory sign as they sat up in bed and chatted with their nurses, at times responding with the customary wai sign of respect.
“Don’t need to worry about their physical health and even more so for their mental health,” said Chaiwetch Thanapaisal, director of Chiang Rai Prachanukroh Hospital.
“Everyone is strong in mind and heart,” he said at a news conference of officials involved in the rescue.
The SEALs commander, Rear Adm. Apakorn Youkongkae, said the soccer coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, determined the order the boys from the Wild Boars soccer team should be rescued in. “The coach was the one to choose,” he said.
The group had entered the sprawling Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand to go exploring after soccer practice on June 23 when monsoon rains filled the tight passageways, blocking their escape. They were found by a pair of British divers nearly 10 days later, huddled on a small, dry shelf just above the water, smiling with relief but visibly skinny.
Chiang Rai province acting Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn, who oversaw the rescue operation, said the boys should not be blamed for their near tragedy. He lauded the cooperation between Thai and international rescuers.
“The situation went beyond just being a rescue mission and became a symbol of unity among mankind,” he said. “Everyone worked together without discrimination of race or religion as the ultimate goal was to save the youth football team.”
Each of the boys, with no diving experience, was guided out by divers though rocky, muddy and water-filled passages that in places were just a crawl space.
The method was extremely risky, but dwindling oxygen levels in the cave and fears of more monsoon rains to come made a decision urgent.
Thongchai Lertwilairatanapong, a public health inspector, said the boys lost an average of 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) while they were trapped. Before their discovery, they survived by drinking water dripping into their cramped refuge.
“To not receive food, we can still survive for many months, but what’s necessary is water, which the cave has, and around this time there’s a lot in the cave, and they chose clean water to drink,” he said.