Still wearing their soccer uniforms and huddled on a rock ledge in the dark cave, the boys didn’t know what day it was and seemed uncertain that the men who’d emerged from the water were there to rescue them.
“You are very strong,” one of the divers said to the boys in English. When one of the youths asked what day it was, the rescuer replied, “Monday. Monday. You have been here more than a week — 10 days.”
The youths said they were hungry, one chanting “Eat, eat, eat” in English.
The rescuer assured them that assistance was on its way: “Many people are coming. We are the first. Many, many others are coming.”
The dramatic discovery late Monday in northern Thailand of the 12 missing boys and their soccer coach brought cries of relief from relatives who had gathered at the mouth of the cave, and ended a desperate and often frustrating search that drew international help and captivated the nation.
The discovery of the boys was captured on video and posted on the Thai Navy SEAL Facebook page. The youths appeared alert, chatty even and seemed anxious to see daylight again.
But their ordeal is not over. Officials said the boys, ages 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach need to first be examined by navy doctors and fed before they can be extricated from the partially flooded cave, and even that could pose difficulties if the water level begins to rise, as it did earlier in the search.
“First we need to drain the water and then we need to send the doctor to assess their health before we can take them out,” said the governor of Chiang Rai province, Narongsak Osotthanakorn.
He offered no time frame for when the group might be brought out the cave. They have so far been given energy gels and basic medication.
The governor said the group was found by a pair of British divers about 300 yards from the patch of elevated dry land that has been at the center of a desperate rescue mission that drew experts from the United States, Australia, Israel, Britain and other nations.
“This is a sweet success,” the governor said at a news conference Tuesday. “We have accomplished what we had initially thought was ‘mission impossible.’ ”
Upon hearing the news, relatives of the missing leaped from makeshift beds in a room where they have been sleeping about 150 yards from the mouth of the cave. Some wept and hugged one another.
The group went missing June 23. The boys and their coach roamed through a lush mountain range near the Mae Sai river before entering the Tham Luang Nang Non cave complex. The cave is a popular site among locals but one that is considered treacherous during the rainy season, which runs from May to October.
It is thought that the group walked deep inside the 5-mile-long cave complex before heavy rain partially flooded the cavern and prevented the 13 from turning back.
Rescue teams led by elite Thai navy divers pumped out muddy water and set up lights to illuminate the darkened cave complex, while locals and Buddhist monks flocked to say prayers and give offerings to spirits believed to watch over the site.
The rescue mission was delayed by rainfall that continued to fill up the cave, forcing divers to turn back repeatedly. With no signs of the missing boys except bicycles by the entrance and a few handprints and footprints inside the cave, many were beginning to fear the worst.
Chaiyon Sirsamott, a local politician who has observed the drama since the second day, said even some experts he spoke with on-site were pessimistic that the group would be found alive.
“I lost my hope,” Chaiyon said. “And I didn’t know how high the water was in the cave.”
As the week progressed and experts arrived from international agencies — including U.S. military search-and-rescue personnel based in Okinawa, Japan — some officials voiced a sense of progress.
But it wasn’t until Sunday, after several days of dry weather, that the water inside began to recede and become clearer, making it easier for divers to navigate.
Chaiyon said that he spoke to divers earlier Monday who said they had finally been able to pass a T-junction that was just before the area where the boys were thought to have taken refuge.
Thai Rear Adm. Arpakorn Yookongkaew said the boys appeared to be in good spirits, some jumping into the water when divers approached them. But Arpakorn said that “it will take time” before the group can leave.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha issued a statement hailing “the tremendous efforts of all international units” involved in the search, the Associated Press reported.
“The Royal Thai government and the Thai people are grateful for this support and cooperation, and we all wish the team a safe and speedy recovery.”
Styllis is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Shashank Bengali in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.
8:50 p.m.: This article has been updated with additional comments from the governor of Chiang Rai province.
4:45 p.m.: This article was updated with details from a video of the rescue.
1:35 p.m.: This article was updated throughout with staff reporting.
10 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details about the search and reports from Narongsak.
9:15 a.m.: This article was updated with a quote from Chiang Rai provincial Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn, and the ages of the boys and coach.
This article was originally published at 9 a.m.