Some of the 12 boys rescued from the Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand were mildly sedated and had to be carried out on stretchers for the latter stages of the highly dangerous extraction, rescuers have revealed.
Video footage of the rescue closely followed by millions around the world reveals that some boys from the Wild Boars football team were carried on stretchers for sections of the mission, which ran over three days up till Tuesday evening.
Other footage released on Wednesday evening local time shows at least half a dozen boys lying in beds in a gleaming white room in Chiang Rai Prachanukroh Hospital, wearing face masks and attended by nurses – looking happy and well.
The rescue has been lauded by Thais and people worldwide, but Thai authorities have been guarded on how a group of boys, many of whom could not swim and none with diving experience, navigated the narrow and submerged passageways of the Tham Luang complex, even with expert diving support, AFP reported.
After days of mounting speculation, a former Thai Navy SEAL diver broke the silence, revealing the boys were sleeping or partially-conscious as they were passed from diver-to-diver through the cave.
‘Some were asleep’
“Some of them were asleep, some of them were wiggling their fingers… [as if] groggy, but they were breathing,” Commander Chaiyananta Peeranarong told AFP.
“My job was to transfer them along,” he said, adding the “boys were wrapped up in stretchers already when they were being transferred” and were monitored at regular intervals by doctors posted along the escape route, which was several kilometers long.
He did not say if the coach, the only adult with the boys for nine days before they found, was able to dive and walk out unaided.
Footage released by the Thai Navy SEALs showed foreign and Thai divers using pulleys, ropes and rubber piping to haul stretchers bearing two of the barely moving young footballers to safety, their exit framed by the jagged cave overhead.
Junta leader General Prayut Chan-ocha said on Tuesday the boys had been given a “minor tranquilizer” to prevent anxiety during the complex extraction. But he denied they were knocked out for an operation that the chief of the rescue had dubbed “mission impossible”.
The rescue was fraught with danger, a point underscored last Friday by the death of a retired Thai Navy SEAL diver as he ran out of air in the flooded cave complex.
Then, with the final divers slowly exiting the cave on Tuesday, the pumps suddenly failed pushing the water level up towards head height in a previously wadeable section of the cave.
“If you didn’t use the water pump in that location, you could only come out with an oxygen tank,” ex-SEAL Commander Chaiyananta said. That left 20 or so divers scrambling to flee the rising waters, he said, explaining they narrowly made it out time.
Australian doctor played key role
Reuters revealed on Tuesday night that the last five boys were brought out of the cave on stretchers, one by one during the late afternoon, and taken by helicopter to the hospital in Chiang Rai, 60km away.
The last of the 13 trapped in the cave since June 23 was allegedly 25-year-old coach Ekapol Chantawong. He was followed by four Navy Seals, who were part of a team of dozens of foreign and local divers involved in the long and arduous rescue, plus Australia doctor Richard Harris.
Dr Harris, 53, an anesthetist from Adelaide, reportedly dived on all three days to assess the boys’ fitness to make the journey – and to give them a small sedative to keep them calm on the way out.
And while the rescue proved an extraordinary success, Harris learnt shortly after it was over that his father had died hours after the last boys emerged.
Dr Harris has been lauded both in Thailand and Down Under, as have the Thai Navy SEALs and other foreign divers, notably the British cave veterans who first found the boys.
The boys and their coach “Ek” are expected to spend about a week in hospital, as a precaution in case they have picked up any infection, doctors said.
The boys remain in quarantine but some of their parents have been able to see their children through the glass windows.
Invitations to watch football in the UK, Spain
The ups and downs of the rescue bid fixated a global audience, drawing comments of support from celebrities as varied as US President Donald Trump, football star Lionel Messi, Liverpool coach Jurgen Klopp and tech guru Elon Musk.
The Thai PM General Prayut welcomed Musk into the cave complex late on Monday, with the American later tweeting a standing offer of a mini-submarine escape pod to help the remaining five leave the tunnels.
Football teams in England and Spain have sent invitations for the boys to come and watch games when the next season begins. However, three of the boys and their coach ‘Ek’ are classed as “stateless” and lack identity documents from Thailand or Myanmar – a problem affecting more than 400,000 people in the north.
Currently, these boys and their coach cannot even travel outside Chiang Rai province. However, that problem could be quickly resolved if the military leaders believe they should be given passports so they can enjoy a trip abroad.