For the past two weeks, the world has been gripped by the harrowing search and rescue operation for the 12 boys and their football coach trapped in a northern Thailand cave.
All of the boys, mostly teenagers, and their coach were part of the local Wild Boars football team. The group wandered into the Tham Luang cave after practice but soon became trapped after heavy rain from a monsoon flooded a large portion of the cave, cutting off the only way out.
After they failed to return home, a massive search and rescue operation involving more than 1,000 rescuers and volunteers was launched. Heavy rains complicated the efforts, though they were finally located after nine days in the cave.
Finally, after an intense, high-stakes rescue operation, all 12 boys and their coach have now been freed after rescue divers entered the flooded cave to successfully extract them. All have been transported to a local hospital for treatment and observation.
All 12 boys and their football coach were just freed from a Thailand cave after being trapped
Sadly, one former Thai Navy SEAL, Sergeant Saman Kunan, perished on July 6 after running out of oxygen while underwater after delivering oxygen masks to the trapped team.
One of his close friends, Sergeant Anuram Kaewchano, expressed shock and sadness at his death.
‘I can’t believe this happened,’ he said to CNN in a phone interview. ‘He was very fit, he exercised every day, and he was a triathlete. Our last trip together was to Malaysia.’
His death was a sobering reminder of the difficulty of the dangerous rescue operation. Fortunately, no other members of the rescue effort died.
After the football club had successfully been extracted, the last four members of the rescue operation – three SEALS and a medical official who had stayed with the boys and their coach in recent days – were the last to leave.
But just who are the boys and their football coach? Details about them are scarce, but here’s what’s been gleaned about them so far.
Assistant coach Ekapol Chantawong
Nicknamed Ake and originally from Mae Sai, Myanmar, Chantawong was thought to have lost his parents in his youth, leaving him essentially orphaned.
The eldest member of those rescued, he reportedly spent a number of years as a Buddhist monk and local community worker before becoming a football coach. His monk training in Lum Phun, Thailand taught him how to stay calm and conserve energy through meditation, techniques he reportedly taught to the boys on his soccer team while trapped underground.
In a letter sent out while trapped, Chantawong apologized to the parents of the boys and stated: ‘To the parents of all the kids, right now the kids are all fine, the crew are taking good care. I promise I will care for the kids as best as possible. I want to say thanks for all the support and I want to apologize to the parents.’
According to some media reports, Chantawong was left in a weakened condition from the ordeal after refusing to eat any food given to him by rescuers, instead giving it to the boys on his football team.
Though some have criticized Chantawong for his perceived recklessness, his hometown had rallied to his side and expressed support for him.
The local abbot at the temple where he works, Prayuth Jetiyanukarn, expressed joy upon learning that the coach and his team were rescued.
‘I’m so happy, but it’s not just for Ek and the team,’ he said. ‘The whole world has been watching over these 18 days and they are celebrating with us.’
Jetiyanukarn also added: ‘It was 18 days but it felt like years.’
Chantawong’s letter, released on July 7, apologized to the parents of the trapped footballers
Little is known about Kamluang thus far, but it appears that he remained in good spirits despite the dire circumstances of the past two weeks.
‘Don’t worry, I’m very happy’, he said to his parents in a letter.
Nicknamed Bew, Wongsukchan pledged in his letter to his parents to help his mother at her store when he was rescued.
He is a student at the Darunratwitthaya school.
As with many of the recently-freed boys, not much is known about Sutham. However, the 15-year-old’s nickname is reportedly Note and he’s been described as ‘quiet’ and ‘smart’ by friends of his family.
He reportedly attends the Mae Sai Prasitthisart school in Thailand.
Prajak Sutha, 14, was one of the boys recently rescued from the flooded cavern in Thailand
Pho, in a letter to his parents, requested Thai barbecue upon being rescued.
Sompiangjai, nicknamed Night, had the misfortune of becoming trapped in the cave on his birthday.
The football team reportedly went to explore the cave in celebration of his birthday on June 23. However, the snacks they brought with them likely helped to sustain them for several days until being contacted and ultimately rescued by authorities.
Nicknamed Tern, the 14-year-old reportedly told his parents not to worry about him in his letter. In turn, his parents replied that they were ‘not angry’ and didn’t blame him for the ordeal.
According to his teacher Manutsanun Kuntun, Jaiwong is very cheerful and athletic, hoping to one day play for the Thai national football team.
Age: 12 or 13
Nicknamed Mark, Booneiam has been described by his parents and teachers as very ‘respectful’ and dedicated to his education just as much as football.
He reportedly is a seventh-grade student at the Ban Pa Muat school.
The captain of the football team, Promtep, nicknamed Dom, has reportedly been scouted by a number of professional football clubs in Thailand. The 13-year-old is also reportedly seen as one of the most motivational and positive members of his team and is widely respected for his athletic abilities.
Reportedly born in Myanmar before leaving to immigrate to Thailand for a better education, Sam-on speaks Thai, English, Burmese and Chinese. His multilingual skills allowed him to be the only one on the trapped team to be able to successfully communicate with the British divers who first discovered them.
In his letters to his parents carried by the rescue divers, Sam-on told them he missed them but not to worry about him.
Samon-on is currently an eighth-grade student at the Ban Wiang Phan school.
Nicknamed Mig, little is known about Sangdee. However, according to the team’s head coach Nopparat Kantawong, Sangdee is larger than most others on the team but exceptionally swift and agile for his size.
He attends the Mae Sai Prasitthisart school.
Nicknamed Titan, the youngest member of the team started playing football when he was seven and later joined his school’s team and the Wild Boars.