The world has finally been given its first glimpse of the 12 boys dramatically rescued from a flooded Thai cave this week, with a new video Wednesday night showing them sitting up, happily waving from their hospital beds.
The last four members of the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach were brought out of the Tham Luang cave in a perilous rescue mission Tuesday night, ending their 17-day ordeal deep under a mountain in the northern Chang Rai province.
And as the boys and their coach begin the recovery from their ordeal, new details of their daring rescue have emerged.
While authorities have been tight-lipped on the exact details of how the group was freed from the flooded caverns, a former Thai Navy SEAL has revealed that the boys were sleeping or partially conscious as they were passed from diver to diver through the cave.
“Some of them were asleep, some of them were wiggling their fingers … [as if] groggy, but they were breathing,” Commander Chaiyananta Peeranarong told AFP on Wednesday night.
“My job was to transfer them along,” he said, adding the “boys were wrapped up in stretchers already when they were being transferred” and were monitored at regular intervals by doctors posted along the kilometres-long route.
Rescue mission chief Narongsak Osottanakorn told a news conference on Wednesday the boys were just being children when they got lost and no one was to blame.
“We don’t see the children as at fault or as heroes. They are children being children, it was an accident,” Mr Narongsak said.
The video of the boys in hospital was shown at the news conference.
Some of the boys, wearing surgical masks, lay on their beds, while some sat and made the peace sign for the camera.
See the first footage of the Wild Boars above ground:
Parents of the first eight rescued boys freed have been able to make their first visit with their children, but had to wear protective suits and stand two metres away as a precaution.
Authorities are worried about the possibility of infections picked up in the cave.
Tanawat Viboonrungruang, the father of 11-year-old Titun, told CNN after leaving the hospital that he was only allowed to see his son through a glass window, but was just relieved he was “still healthy”.
Seeing his son through the glass, he said he only wanted to hug him.
“I started to cry, everybody started to cry,” he said.
“I want to say thanks to those who rescued my boy. And helped him to have a new life, it’s like a rebirth.”
The group of 13, including the coach, lost an average of 2kg during their ordeal but were generally in good condition and showed no signs of stress, a senior health official said earlier.
After being brought out of the cave, the boys were taken to hospital in the town of Chiang Rai, about 70km away, where they remain in quarantine.
The boys would have to stay in hospital for up to 10 days, hospital director Chaiwetch Thanapaisal told the news conference. They would then need to recuperate at home for 30 days, he added.
Thongchai Lertwilairattanapong, a health department inspector, earlier told reporters one member from the last group freed on Tuesday had a lung infection and they were all given vaccinations for rabies and tetanus.
The group ventured into the vast cave complex in the northern province of Chiang Rai after soccer practice on June 23 and were trapped when a rainy season downpour flooded tunnels.
They were lost for nine days before British rescue divers discovered them on July 2, sitting on a ledge in a half-flooded chamber.
The rescue – which involved teaching boys as young as 11 who were not strong swimmers to dive through narrow, submerged passages – proved a massive and risky challenge.
Former member of Thailand’s navy SEAL unit, Saman Gunan, died during a mission to prepare air tanks along the cave on Friday.
Mr Narongsak, revealed Wednesday that falling oxygen levels inside the cave complex had added a sense of urgency.
The commander of the Navy SEAL unit that oversaw the rescue, Rear Admiral Apakorn Yuukongkaew, hailed the international effort.
“We are not heroes. This mission was successful because of co-operation from everyone,” he said. “For SEALs, this is what we were trained for. The navy has a motto: ‘We don’t abandon the people’.”
Official help came from Australia, Britain, the United States, Japan, Laos, Myanmar and China, a government document showed. There were volunteers from Denmark, Germany, Belgium, Canada, Ukraine and Finland.
The rescue has dominated front-page headlines in Thailand and beyond for days.