A daring rescue mission in the treacherous confines of a flooded cave in Thailand has saved 12 boys and their football coach, who were trapped deep within the labyrinth.
The rescue operation ended an 18-day ordeal that claimed the life of an experienced volunteer diver and riveted people around the world.
People on the street cheered and clapped when ambulances ferrying them on the last leg of their journey from the cave arrived at a hospital in Chiang Rai city.
Amporn Sriwichai, an aunt of the rescued coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, said she was happy and excited.
“If I see him, I just want to hug him and tell him that I missed him very much,” she said.
Thailand’s navy Seals, who were central to the rescue effort, said on their Facebook page that the remaining four boys and their 25-year-old coach were all brought out safely on Tuesday.
Eight of the boys were rescued by a team of 18 Thai and international divers on Sunday and Monday.
The leader of the operation, Chiang Rai acting governor Narongsak Osatanakorn, said: “We did something nobody thought possible.”
Seven divers in the rescue team were from the UK, including Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, who were the first to reach the group last week.
“We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what. All the thirteen Wild Boars are now out of the cave,” the Seals said, referring to the name of the boys’ football team.
“Everyone is safe.”
Payap Maiming, 40, who helped provide food and necessities to rescue workers and journalists, said a “miracle” had happened.
“I’m happy for Thais all over the country, for the people of Mae Sai, and actually just everyone in the world because every news channel has presented this story and this is what we have been waiting for,” she said.
“It’s really a miracle. It’s hope and faith that has brought us this success.”
The plight of the boys and their coach has captivated Thailand and much of the world – from the heartbreaking news that they were missing to the first flickering video of the huddle of anxious yet smiling boys when they were found 10 days later by the British divers.
One of the boys appeared to be wearing a red replica England football shirt.
They were trapped in the Tham Luan Nang Non cave on June 23, when they were exploring it after football practice and it became flooded by monsoon rains.
The route, in some places just a crawl space, had oxygen canisters positioned at regular intervals to refresh each team’s air supply.
Highlighting the dangers, a former Thai navy Seal died on Friday while replenishing the canisters.
Cave diving experts had warned it was potentially too risky to dive the youngsters out.
But Thai officials, acutely aware that the boys could be trapped for months by monsoon rains that would swell waters in the cave system, seized a window of opportunity provided by relatively mild weather.
A massive water pumping effort also made the winding cave more navigable.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, speaking before the final rescue was completed, said the boys were given an anti-anxiety medication to help with their perilous removal from the cave.
Asked at a press conference if the boys had been sedated, Mr Prayuth said: “Who would chloroform them? If they’re chloroformed, how could they come out? It’s called anxiolytic, something to make them not excited, not stressed.”
Mr Prayuth said the Tham Luan Nang Non cave would be closed for some time to make it safe for visitors.
The eight boys brought out by divers on Sunday and Monday were doing well and were in good spirits, a senior health official said.
They were given a treat on Tuesday: bread with chocolate spread that they had requested.
Jedsada Chokdumrongsuk, permanent secretary at the Public Health Ministry, said the first four boys rescued were able to eat normal food, though they could not yet take the spicy dishes favoured by many Thais.
Two of the boys possibly have a lung infection but all eight are generally “healthy and smiling”, he said.
“The kids are footballers so they have high immune systems,” Mr Jedsada said.
“Everyone is in high spirits and are happy to get out. But we will have a psychiatrist to evaluate them.”
It could be at least seven days before they can be released from hospital, Mr Jedsada told a news conference.
Family members have seen at least some of the boys from behind a glass isolation barrier.
Mr Jedsada said they were uncertain what type of infections the boys could face “because we have never experienced this kind of issue from a deep cave”.
If medical tests show no dangers, after another two days parents will be able to enter the isolation area dressed in sterilised clothing and staying two metres away from the boys, said Tosthep Bunthong, a public health official.
John Tangkitcharoenthawon, a local village chairman who was working as a volunteer translator for the tourist police, was bursting with happiness at the successful rescue.
“If this place had a roof, the morale has gone straight through it,” he said.
US President Donald Trump joined those paying tribute to the rescuers.
“On behalf of the United States, congratulations to the Thai Navy SEALs and all on the successful rescue of the 12 boys and their coach from the treacherous cave in Thailand,” he tweeted.
He added: “Such a beautiful moment – all freed, great job!”