Just days ago, the situation had seemed impossible. Twelve boys and their coach were trapped deep in a flooded cave, their oxygen supplies dwindling and torrential rain on the way.
By Tuesday, Thailand was jubilantly celebrating the rescue of all 13, an audacious undertaking that swelled national pride — but also gratitude and humility for an operation that was an international effort.
Officials called it a model for global cooperation. International journalists covering the event broke into spontaneous, emotional applause at a news conference by Thai officials after the last of the stranded group was brought to the surface.
The drama had begun on June 23 for members of the Wild Boars soccer team, ages 11 to 16, and their coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, 25. The happy ending came Tuesday evening when the last five of the group were taken from the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in northern Thailand, triggering joy and celebration across the country.
It had been a daring operation, in which children equipped with diving gear — some of the boys had to be taught to swim — were ushered through a dangerous tunnel system that would challenge the most experienced cave divers.
Rescue experts and divers from around the world took part in the carefully planned operation, with each boy flanked by two rescue divers on the way to the surface.
“We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what. All the 13 Wild Boars are now out of the cave,” the Thai navy SEALs posted after the rescue effort.
Dozens of locals lined the route to the Chiang Rai Prachanukroh Hospital where the boys were taken, cheering each ambulance as it sped by.
Thai social media buzzed with joy, expressing gratitude to those who supported the mission. The Twitter hashtag #BringWildBoarTeamHome has been used more than 1.2 million times.
In online postings, Thai artists celebrated the contributions of different nations, from an Australian cave diving doctor who cleared every child for evacuation from the cave, to the British divers who found the trapped group on a muddy underground shelf, and SpaceX executive Elon Musk, who hastily developed a “kid-size” submarine escape pod because of fears about extracting the youngest member of the team safely. (It was never used.)
“This event brought people around the world together,” said Chayakorn Kumchoke, 27, a resident of Chiang Mai, not far from the rescue site. “It showed that our country and our world are not a bad place after all.”
As people celebrated, many also took time to remember former Thai navy SEAL Saman Kunan, who died Friday placing air tanks in the cave system in preparation for the rescue that would come two days later. He had left the service, but volunteered to come back to help with the operation. Officials called him “a hero not only for Thais but for the whole world.”
Rescue mission chief Narongsak Osottanakorn said the operation offered a lesson to the world. "I want to see the world love each other. I want to see Thailand love each other like what we have seen today," he said.
U.S. Air Force Capt. Jessica Tait, part of the American military team helping the rescue, also said she was inspired by the rescue. “Every single country that's here under the leadership of Thai authorities, that's what made the mission impossible very possible,” she said.
Tait was in Chamber 3, closest to the entry, where an underground command post was set up, and the children received their first medical attention after the perilous dive from the chamber where they were trapped.
Rescuers’ fears were always greatest for the youngest boy, 11-year-old Chanin Wiboonrunguen, who was in the final group evacuated Tuesday.
“We’re worried about the smallest lad,” British diver and one of the rescue coordinators, Richard Stanton, had written in a July 8 email to Musk, posted online, urging him to develop his escape pod made from rocket parts, in case the boy was unable to make the dangerous dive.
After the boys went missing, there was alarm they might never be found in the labyrinthine cave complex, amid a frantic search effort that drew cave divers from around the world. Once they were located, authorities thought the children might have to be supported underground until the end of the monsoon season, months away, amid fears about the difficulties of teaching them how to swim through jagged rock tunnels filled with rapidly flowing water with near-zero visibility.
The go-slow plan had to be abandoned as the oxygen levels in the underground cave depleted dangerously, making it clear that survival underground for many months would not be possible.
One of the keys to the success of the mission was a vast pumping operation that saw millions of gallons of water removed from the cave, flooding nearby farmland. As soon as the rescue mission was complete, the teams were deployed to pump the water away from the farms.
Thai volunteers turned up at the scene to search in vain for an outside entry in the mountainous jungle above the cave, or just to cook meals for the rescuers.
Chanthawong, the coach who earlier apologized to families in a note for his role leading the children into the caves so close to the monsoon season, was among the last to leave.
"I jumped out of joy when I learned he was taken out of the cave," said Ekapol's 58-year-old aunt, Amporn Srivichai. "I'm really thankful for everyone's effort."
Instead of recriminations over his role leading the children into the cave, Thai social media portrayed him as a hero for looking after the children underground.
The crucial point of the rescue was a very narrow section with a turn, perilous to navigate even for experts.
Tuesday’s rescue was the most challenging yet. Instead of the four boys saved in each of the missions Sunday and Monday, the final rescue attempt had to extract five of the trapped group, along with an army doctor and three navy SEALs who had stayed underground with the boys.
Leaders around the world praised the efforts of Thai rescuers and their international helpers. President Trump tweeted that it was “a beautiful moment,” adding “great job.”
England’s Manchester United soccer club invited the boys to visit, after news that they would not be able to accept an invitation from FIFA to attend the soccer World Cup final because they would still be in the hospital. But FIFA expressed “great joy” over news of the rescue.
Apart from coughs and scratches, the first eight boys rescued were in surprisingly good health. Doctors announced Tuesday that two were being treated for minor lung infections.
One of those who emerged Monday had a low body temperature and low heart rate, but quickly recovered, according to a public health official, Dr. Jesada Chokedamrongsuk.
So far the boys have not been able to hug their parents because of the risk of infection, but the first four rescued were allowed to see them through a glass partition Tuesday. In two days, the families of the first group will be able to enter their rooms wearing hospital masks but will have to stay at least 6 feet away.
“After we are confident there is no infection, we will allow them to meet them normally,” he said.
The first four rescued had asked for bread and chocolate spread Tuesday morning, he said. The boys were brought out blindfolded to protect their eyes after weeks in the darkness and initially had to wear sunglasses.
According to the doctor, the boys were cheerful and talkative.
After the boys had become trapped by rising waters, it was nine days before they were discovered by two British divers on the muddy ledge, deeper in the cave complex than expected.
Thai Prime Minister Prayat Chan-o-cha said the boys had been given anti-anxiety medication to keep them from panicking on the journey through the tunnels.
He said Tuesday that the cave complex would be closed to the public for some time after the rescue to prevent a repeat of the crisis. Once reopened, it would be monitored constantly.
Sasiwan Mokkasen contributed to this report. Special correspondent Styllis reported from Mae Sai and Times staff writer Dixon from Beijing.