Eighteen days after entering the caves on a team-bonding session, the remaining lost boys and their coach, as well as all rescue and medical personnel, emerged alive and well on Tuesday, following a daring and precarious operation, which saw one volunteer Navy seal lose his life.
Narongsak Osatanaskorn, the former governor who has led the rescue, made the official announcement at 9.45pm on Tuesday evening, after a tense few days of rescue missions.
“I never imagined this could happen – but we did it. We completed mission impossible,” the beaming rescue chief told a throng of hundreds of reporters and support crew, before stepping forth and inviting the crowd to join him and pose for photos.
The happy snap session went on for some time. After 10 minutes had passed, Mr Narongsak was at the centre of a crowd that could be heard chanting “hooyah, hooyah, hooyah” – the call sign of the Thai Navy seals, who played a major role in the three-day operation.
In an impassioned address, the coordinator said the rescue effort would serve as a “lesson to the world.”
He spoke about the “spirit of love” that had characterised the 18-day marathon to locate and evacuate the boys and said that heroes had been created in the Mae Sai district – “10,000 of them”.
“Images from these days will live on forever,” he said.
The team of expert divers from Thailand and around the world completed their improbable mission some 60 hours after a round-the-clock operation was launched on Sunday morning, as seasonal monsoon rains threatened to trap the boys and their coach inside the caves for months.
The 13 were stranded on a 10-square-metre ledge more than a mile inside the cave without proper food, water, sanitation or sunlight, until they were discovered by a pair of British divers on 2 July.
Conditions improved somewhat after rescuers made contact but fears about poor oxygen levels and the ominous monsoon kept the watching world on edge.
The jubilant rescue chief announced that the families of the five who came out of the cave today would be able to visit their loved ones this evening – a reversal on the previous two batches of four to emerge, who had to wait 24 hours to see theirs.
Gobchai Boon-orrana, the deputy director of Thailand’s department of disaster prevention and mitigation, was equally elated in addressing the crowd.
“Today, I don’t want to talk about work,” he announced.
One of the lead hands on the mission, Mr Gobchai referred to those rescued as his “13 grandsons.”
He joked that Thailand now had a new internationally famous tourist attraction, following wall-to-wall coverage of the cave rescue right around the globe.
Finally, he paid tribute to Saman Gunan, the 38-year-old Navy Seal who lost his life in the caves leading up the eventual rescue, declaring him a hero of the Thai people and the world.
“May he rest in peace – the hero of Thung Luam,” Mr Gobchai said.
The local police commander Major General Churat Pan-ngao also took his turn to speak, first thanking the media for following official orders as the rescue operation unfolded.
He then turned his attention to a reporter who was detained for flying a drone near the cave mouth, explaining that he had been sent to court today and fined 10,000 Thai baht (£227).
The police chief said that he would do the offender the favour of keeping his identity secret. Polish journalists in Mae Sai have identified the man as Woytek Bojanowski, who they say is the nation’s journalist of the year.
Mr Narongsak said more details would be released on Wednesday on how the rescue was set up and carried out.
He said all 13 people rescued from the cave were in stable condition at a hospital in Chiang Rai – where Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha visited on Monday – and that more details about their condition would soon be released.
Earlier in the evening, the Thai Navy seals celebrated the successful and unlikely mission with a Facebook post: “We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what. All the 13 Wild Boars are now out of the cave,” it read.
A secondary post featured their call to arms, which is catching fire all around a country that tonight breathed a collective sigh of relief: “Hooyah”.
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