A team-building exercise that turned into a nightmare
HIKING was never
supposed to be considered that dangerous. Initially a way for the assistant
coach to learn to manage the young soccer players on his own, and a kind of
team-building exercise for the Wild Boars, the seemingly innocent excursion
quickly took a turn that’s since captivated the world for two weeks.
What started as a “rite of passage” for the 12 Thai
schoolboys, aged between 11 and 16, was then described as a situation “worse
than any horror movie you could imagine”.
The adventure one taken by several boys many times
before was said to be crucial to the team’s training because they spend as many
as 20 hours a week together. The difference this time was the time of year and
the coming weather.
Many had never dared venture into the notorious Tham
Luang cave system — Thailand’s longest with a series of tunnels, slippery rocks
and cliffs with stark drop-offs shrouded in darkness during the country’s wet
The large warning sign at the start should have been
an indicator, as it tells how the caves can rapidly flood during monsoon
While some locals and young boys say they are warned
to stay away from the infamous and “off-limits” system at this time of year,
others say they’d already gone several times and are always well prepared for
The young coach, Ekkapol “Aek” Chanthawong, was said
to be keeping the boys on a strict training schedule and that often included
biking across the hills that surround Mae Sai from their soccer field nestled
by the mountain range.
Nopparat Kathawong, the 37-year-old head coach of the
Wild Boars, told The Washington
Post he didn’t know where Ekkapol
would be taking the team but he trusted them.
All he asked was that he take some of boys from the
older team for extra eyes and for Ekkapol to ride his bike behind them to “keep
On June 23, the group set out on their mission — a
45-minute bike ride from their school to the cave — without him because
Nopparat had an appointment.
It wasn’t until 7pm when he turned his phone back on
that night that he realised something had gone terribly wrong.
Somewhere between the boys leaving their bicycles at
the entrance to the cave, the sky opened up with heavy rain that filled the
tunnels with water and cut off their exit route.
They had no choice but to keep forging ahead, along
elevated slopes, where they found a dry ledge 4km into the cave that would
ultimately make their rescue even more treacherous, leaving them stranded in
total darkness for days.
All Nopparat found when he made it to the entrance of
the cave that night were the boys’ bikes and bags next to what triggered his
worst fears — water pouring out from the opening.
“I screamed — ‘Ek! Ek! Ek!’ My body went completely
cold,” he told The Washington Post.
That triggered an international rescue operation and
on July 2, more than a week after they went missing, two divers found the group
alive, deep from the cave’s entrance and huddled on a 10sq m ledge.
The painstaking rescue has so far seen eight boys
safely out with four others and the coach still trapped. The head of the rescue operation would not confirm
whether all five could come out today, raising questions over whether Ekkapol
could be left behind to spent a lonely night in the cave.
Boys who didn’t go and know him have faith he will
survive, despite reports he is the weakest of the group having sacrificed his
food for them.
Two boys who go by the nickname Queue and Kaan didn’t
end up going on the hike but told the ABC they wouldn’t hesitate following their coach into
the system because they trusted him with their lives.
They said he would often give the boys a pep talk
before going in, spending up to six hours inside with food, water and lots of
flashlights. But with Ekkapol having been a monk and teaching the boys how to
meditate, even when their torches went out and they were surrounded by bats,
they would never be scared.
The goal of the mission was to scrawl their names at
the end of the 2.5km tunnel as proof they’d completed the journey.
Queue had never gone during the rainy season but said
he had already been four times this year with their coach, trekking a few
kilometres each time.