An assistant coach, an Australian physician, a handful of Thailand's navy SEALs and 100 determined professional first responders and volunteers were hailed as heroes Wednesday for the daring rescue of 12 members of the now-famous Wild Boars youth soccer team.
For some of those kids, the more than two weeks stranded deep in a flooded cave was just the latest challenge in their difficult lives.
Video released Wednesday from the hospital where they are being cared for shows the boys, wearing hospital gowns and masks, sitting up in their beds, making victory signs to the camera and waving to ecstatic parents. Family members, some near tears, wave back from behind glass.
The boys were famished and weak when they were found, having lost an average of more than four pounds each. But their spirits were high, and the rescue team brought them nutritional gels to slowly build their strength.
All are hospitalized and will remain so for several more days. But they are now eating regular food, and some will be going home in a week.
"Overall, the 13 people are in very good condition," Thai health official Thongchai Lertwilairatanapong said.
Chaiwetch Thanapaisal, director of Chiang Rai Prachanukroh Hospital, said the boys will each be hospitalized for at least a week, then spend the next month at home recuperating.
"Everyone is very strong in the mind and heart," he said.
The boys and their coach, Ekapol Chantawong, walked into the cave June 23 after soccer practice for what was supposed to be a few hours of exploration. Heavy rains trapped them there, and it was 10 days before the first rescuers found them.
It took more than week after that for an international team of rescuers to get them all out. A Thai navy SEAL ran out of oxygen and died during the preparations, the tragedy highlighting the dangers the cave presented.
The group was extracted over three days. The final mission Tuesday involved 100 people including more than a dozen divers and Australian physician Richard Harris, who emerged from the cave after caring for the boys to learn that his own father had died.
Expert divers guided each boy for several hours, navigating more than two miles of the narrow, twisting, dark and dangerous labyrinth. Some sections involved diving, and the boys were packed in wetsuits and facemasks while their companion divers carried oxygen tanks.
Other sections of the cave involved walking, wading, crawling and climbing. Derek Anderson, a U.S. Air Force rescue specialist who was with a team of Americans aiding the operation, said some sections were dry but steep and rocky.
“We had to set up rope systems and high-lines to be able to safely put them in a harness and bring them across large open areas,” Anderson said. "The world just needs to know that what was accomplished was a once-in-a-lifetime rescue."
"Coach Ek" has drawn praise for his efforts to keep the boys alive for the almost 10 days they were trapped in the cave before being found. They drank only water that dripped from the walls, not the murky brew that trapped them. He taught them meditation to calm them, and ate a smaller share of the few snacks they had brought in.
They are survivors, and for some that is nothing new. Coach Ek and three of the boys have no nationality. They are from tribes in an area around Mae Sai known as the "Golden Triangle" stretching across parts of Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and China where borders have shifted and passports don't exist.
"He is stateless. No nationality. No country," Nopparat Khanthavong, founder of the Wild Boars club, told AFP.
The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates Thailand is home to more than 400,000 stateless people. The Thai government has pledged to attain zero statelessness by 2024.
"To get nationality is the biggest hope for the boys," Nopparat said. "In the past these boys have problems traveling to play matches outside of Chiang Rai" because of their nationless status.
Efforts are underway to provide the boys with Thai nationality. And they will be returning to their homes and schools as kings. Manchester United, a professional soccer team in Britain with fans around the globe, has invited them to a game. They even have an open invitation to Sunday's World Cup final game in Russia, though for medical reasons they are unlikely to attend.
The world is thankful. Thailand is ecstatic.
"We did something nobody thought possible," acting local Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn said. "It was mission possible for team Thailand."
Associated Press reports were used in this article.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.