By Jintamas Saksornchai and Todd Ruiz
CHIANG RAI — An international rescue team has located all missing youths and their coach in the cave where they went missing nine days ago.
Coming as hopes faded following a long and difficult rescue operation, the news that all were found at 9:38pm inside the Luang Khun Nam Nang Non Cave complex was met with cheers and tears when it was announced.
Rescuers had been pushing toward a chamber where they had pinned their best hopes on finding the “Wild Boars” team and coach, whose disappearance sparked a massive rescue effort including the military and teams from the United States, Japan, China, England, Australia and more.
That chamber was found flooded as well. But the divers pushed on and found the group 400 meters beyond that point, according to government spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd.
“The Wild Boars are found, but our mission is not over,” read a message posted online by the SEAL team. “Divers will continue to go to the area along with an underwater medical expert, bringing power gel and care packages to the boys and sending people in to accompany them until the extraction plan begins.”
A reporter on the scene described the moment the news broke: Gov. Narongsak Osottanakorn took a phone call and immediately ran out, and another reporter called and said the governor was hugging the SEAL commander and walked into the medics’ tent. Less than 10 minutes later, another medical specialist also went into the tent, and another 10 mins later the governor announced the discovery.
At a brief news conference, Gov. Narongsak said immediate plans are to pump water out the cave and transport medical professionals to their location. They will assess the conditions the 12 footballers – aged 11-16 – and their 25-year-old coach before determining the best course of action to extracting them safely.
There was no immediate word as to their condition.
“So far I only know that everyone is exhausted,” said regional health official Thongchai Lertwilairattanapong. “We have staff on call at all hours to care for them.”
Aikan Wibulroongreung, the mother of the youngest boy, thanked the rescuers who came from around the country and world to rescue her 11-year-old son.
“There’s a picture of others. I haven’t seen my son’s yet, but I’m so glad already to see the others,” Aikan said.
Rescue teams had recently set up a base camp inside the cave spending days battling mud, flooding and torrential rain. The rain let up in the last days of the search, which helped lower water levels while drilling wells to help succeeded after days of disappointment.
Dozens of shafts found on hills above the cave were also explored to see if some could provide access to the missing 13. Care packages with food, notes, maps and flashlights were dropped through them this last few days in a hope that the boys might found them.
The 12 boys and coach went missing June 23 after football practice. It prompted one of the biggest and most intense search and rescue missions in the nation’s history which saw support pouring in from across the country and the world.
Experts from Myanmar and Laos also joined the effort led by about 1,000 soldiers, rescue workers and volunteers from several government departments and private organizations.
Thailand’s prime minister has thanked international experts and rescuers who helped find the 12 boys and their soccer coach who had been missing in a cave for more than a week.
Through his office, junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha expressed his gratitude to the “international teams that helped Thai authorities in rescuing the young football team,” wishing them a “safe and speedy recovery.”
Another news conference will be held at about 3am.
Images were being traded on social media allegedly showing the boys inside the cave, but the Navy said that rescuers were not equipped with cameras.
This is a developing story and will be updated without notice.