BANGKOK—Thailand’s two-week cave nightmare ended Tuesday with the evacuation of the last four of 12 boys trapped underground with their adult soccer coach, who also was rescued in the final group. Gleeful Thais celebrated across the kingdom as authorities and medical experts shifted focus to the youths’ physical and mental recovery.
Thai Navy SEALS—key members of the rescue contingent—were terse but ebullient on their Facebook page, where they announced the retrieval of all the Wild Boars soccer team:
“12 wild boars and coach are out of the cave. Everyone safe now waiting to pick up four frogs. Hooyah”
The “frogs” reference was to a physician and three SEALS who had remained with the group since they were located. It was not immediately clear when those four would be brought up from the flooded cave.
Tuesday’s rescue was the denouement of a spectacular, well-organized, and perfectly executed three-day, three-phase operation led by the British divers who found the stranded soccer team on July 2 after they went missing on June 23. It involved more than 1,000 people, from divers to SEALS, soldiers, police, and numerous volunteers, including—unsurprisingly for Thailand—massage workers. Some 90 divers participated, about 40 of them foreigners.
The last boys trapped emerged within no more than 40 minutes of each other. Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who had visited with relatives, said in Bangkok that the youngsters were administered anti-anxiety medication to calm them, confirming rumors that they were sedated and had to be revived before being airlifted from Tham Luang Cave to hospital in Chiang Rai.
Nineteen divers descended into the cave shortly after 10 a.m. Tuesday for the third phase of the rescue operation, which extracted four boys Sunday and four more on Monday. Authorities, pleased with the two previous successes, projected confidence, predicting a speedy extraction despite heavy rain overnight. They did concede that the mission would be tougher and take longer because divers had to evacuate a total of nine people.
“If everything goes as planned, everyone will be out today,” rescue operations chief Narongsak Osottanakorn said at a press conference earlier in the day, triggering cheers and clapping.
On their Facebook page the SEALs earlier predicted, “We will celebrate together. Hooyah.”
By the time the last four boys did emerge, officials were busy devising ways to nurse them and the rest of the Wild Boars soccer team back to good health and restore them to their families.
All the boys will be hospitalized for at least another week. That means they will have to decline FIFA's invitation to them and their coach to attend the World Cup football final in Moscow on July 15, which would have been a dream trip to the team. They will have to watch from their hospital beds.
The eight who previously were evacuated are being treated at Chiangrai Prachanukroh Hospital, where officials say they are together in one ward, walking and eating—they apparently were ravenous after not having eaten for days. For a time, all sported sunglasses—in an effort to help them adjust to harsh light after almost two weeks in the pitch-black, murky cave.
Among their first words were “I miss home”—and they expressed their joy to be released.
All the boys, ages 11 to 17—the eldest was 16 when they went missing but marked a birthday in the cave complex—were in good condition, though they were being kept in isolation because of fears of infection. Two of them displayed symptoms of what might be lung infections.
“There’s no concern about long term effects,” Jedsada Chokdamrongsuk, permanent secretary in the Ministry of Public Health, told reporters. “Everyone seems healthy.”
None of the eight had yet hugged their families, Jedsada added. Some of the families were allowed to see them through a glass partition. All are in a “good mental state,” he said.
“The kids are footballers so they have high immune systems,” Jedsada said. “Everyone is in high spirits and happy to get out.” Even so, he said, a psychiatrist will “evaluate them.”
Prayuth described the cave as “dangerous” and said the Thai government would close it for a while and take precautions to ensure this never happens again.