The 12 members of a soccer team and their coach rescued from a flooded cave in northern Thailand finally regained their full freedom on Wednesday, walking out of a hospital a week after they emerged from 18 days trapped underground.
The Wild Boars team members, who range in age from 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old assistant coach spent at least eight days at the hospital in Chiang Rai being tested and treated for relatively minor ailments, given their ordeal. They were brought to the hospital over the course of a dramatic three-day rescue operation.
The team left the hospital just after 5:50 a.m. Eastern on Wednesday and was transported to a conference center in Chiang Rai, where they're to give a news conference -- their first opportunity to present their own first-hand account of the story which has captivated a global audience for almost a month. The conference hall was decorated as a soccer field.
Government spokesman Lt. Gen. Sansern Kaewkamnerd said doctors, social workers and psychologists would participate in the news conference to filter questions and ensure the boys' well-being. The media would not be allowed to interview the boys after the news conference.
The Wild Boars teammates entered the Tham Luang cave on June 23 for a quick, relaxing excursion after soccer practice. But rain began falling while they were underground, and the water filled the caverns, cutting off their escape.
Divers found the group huddling on a spot of dry ground deep inside the cave 10 days later, hungry but generally healthy. An international team of rescuers using diving equipment and pulleys extracted the 12 boys and coach through the tight, flooded passageways over three days, concluding July 10.
Some of the boys were treated for minor infections during their hospital stay, but all 13 have been described as recovering well.
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"Didn't think it was real"
The first question for the Wild Boars was about the moment they were rescued, and how they communicated with the British diver who first found them.
"We didn't think it was real," one of the team members said, explaining that they first heard the rescuer's voice but couldn't see him.
When they realized that help had actually arrived, the player, who was the only English speaker among the team members, said he "didn't know what to say to him so I just said 'hello.'"
"I was shocked. Then he asked if I was okay, so I said I was okay."
Assistant coach Ekkapol "Ake" Chantawong said in the initial confusion and excitement he had to try and calm down his player so he could concentrate on communicating for the team.
"My brain was very slow, as we had been in the cave for 10 days," said the English speaking player. "Hungry, hungry," he told the diver.
The Wild Boars were jovial as they walked into the conference center and onto a waiting stage.
A man who described himself as a media representative introduced the team and said all 100 questions for the team had been screened beforehand, "for sensitivity."
He said any additional questions could be submitted for screening by the medical experts who have screened the players.
The director of the hospital in Chiang Rai, where the boys have recuperated for the last week, was first to speak.
"They are ready to go home," he said, as the boys smiled. He said they were no longer showing any signs of mental trauma, and they "seem fine to go ahead with their regular lives."
"They've been ready to go home since they were in the cave!" said one of the Thai military officers who led the rescue effort, adding that they had spoken a lot since being trapped about what they were most looking forward to eating.
A medical worker from the hospital agreed that they were "quite ready" to go home. "They are quite strong."
The boys then stood one by one, after their assistant coach Ekkapol "Ake" Chantawong, and introduced themselves, each giving a traditional Thai greeting with hands clasped in prayer fashion and a slight bow.
The entire soccer team, with rows of relieved parents sitting behind them, gathered at the conference center in Chiang Rai on Wednesday to tell the world, for the first time in their own words, about their 18 days trapped underground in a flooded cave.
The boys were seen smiling and talking to each other before the carefully orchestrated news conference began.
A cadre of social workers and mental health experts were on hand to deflect any questions from the media deemed too sensitive for the boys to answer this soon after their ordeal.
Before the news conference began the boys and their coach all posed for a team photo in their uniforms.
They were then led into the room, smiling and waving to gathered media on the way, to a separate building to give the news conference.
Cameras were outside the hospital in Chiang Rai to catch the first images of the boys, all of whom appeared happy and relaxed as dozens of adults shepherded them onto waiting vans.
A woman who came to the hospital just to see the now-revered soccer team emerge told a television crew she was "very happy" to see the boys walk out. She was emotional after watching the team members leave smiling.
All 12 team members and their assistant coach were on their way to the conference center to address a gaggle of journalists from around the world.
The family of one of the boys was preparing their home for his return Wednesday night.
Banphot Konkum, an uncle who has raised 13-year-old Duangpetch Promthep, said he'll have a renovated bedroom and gifts awaiting him.
"We'll do whatever he wants. If he wants anything we'll buy it for him as a present as we promised that when he gets out, whatever he wants we'll do it for him," Banphot said.