World·CBC in Thailand

'They have become the world's kids': Locals awed after Thai cave rescue captured world's attention

At the scene of the cave rescue in Chiang Rai, Thailand, everyone involved in the operation - from volunteer translators to men who pumped water out of the cave - was overcome with emotion upon learning the last of the 12 boys and their soccer coach had been safely rescued on Tuesday.

Members of the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach are now recuperating in hospital

Classmates of the 12 schoolboys trapped inside a flooded cave in Chiang Rai, Thailand, pray after their teacher at Mae Sai Prasitsart school announced some of the boys had been rescued. People around the world have been sharing in their joy and relief at the boys' safe return from a harrowing ordeal. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

When Thai navy SEALs confirmed that all 12 soccer players and their coach had been safely rescued from the flooded cave they had entered 18 days ago, Simmee Oupra was overcome with emotion.

For the past 10 days, she has been volunteering at the media centre near the cave helping to translate press briefings. In the process, she has developed a strong connection to a group of boys she'd never met. 

"They are not only the kids of Chiang Rai or the kids of Thailand," she said in English.

"They have become the world's kids."

Simmee Oupra has volunteered as a translator for the past 10 days at the press centre near the cave where 12 young boys and their soccer coach have been trapped for almost three weeks. She says it has felt like the whole world was rooting for the boys. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

The disappearance, discovery and rescue of the Wild Boars soccer team has gripped people all over the world. A dozen team members ranging in age from 11 to 16 and their coach became trapped on June 23 while exploring  Tham Luang cave complex in the northern province of Chiang Rai after a soccer practice. Once they were inside, the tunnels behind them flooded after heavy rain.

A team of British rescuers found them on July 2. Images of the boys in their uniforms huddled together on a dry slab of rock were shared around the world as Thai officials pondered how to safely get them out.

Each time the commander of the rescue mission held a news conference outside a local government office, hundreds of journalists crammed together for the latest updates.

A throng of journalists waits for updates outside a local government complex near Tham Luang cave complex in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, on Tuesday. The boys' ordeal has captivated the world's attention. (Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)

'I'm very proud to play a small part in the success'

Trained divers from the U.S., the U.K., Canada and elsewhere flew to Thailand to offer their expertise and help escort the team out through the flooded cave passages. 

"If you take a step back and you look at it … it's not about boundaries, it's not about race or religion," Oupra said. "It's towards only one goal."

In addition to the 1,000 Thai soldiers who helped out with the rescue operation, hundreds of others took on crucial roles.

At an open-air restaurant in Chiang Rai, a group of men sat around the table and watched the news on a television hanging overhead. For the past two weeks, they have spent almost all of their time pumping water out of the cave.

A group of men who had been helping pump water out of the cave for the past two weeks share a meal at a restaurant in Chiang Rai while watching news of the third and final rescue. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

The  first four boys were brought out of the cave Sunday. Another four emerged Monday. The final group of four boys and their 25-year-old coach were brought out Tuesday. 

Despite the heavy rain that fell the night before the third and final rescue, the water levels didn't rise, which meant it was possible for the boys and their coach to walk and wade through a longer distance underground.

A helicopter delivered the boys and their coach to Chiang Rai Prachanukroh Hospital in Chiang Rai, the closest city to the cave complex, where the 12 boys and their coach were reunited on a dedicated floor. Each team member has to spend time in isolation for fear of spreading infection; health officials expect all of them to be in the hospital for at least a week.

Rescue workers wearing protection suits wait for some of the rescued schoolboys at military airport in Chiang Rai on Monday. The boys and their coach have to spend time in isolation to protect against the spread of any possible infections they may have contracted while in the cave. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)

"I'm very happy that children are all out," said one of the men employed by the Thai government to help with the rescue.

"I'm very proud to play a small part in the success."

The last people to leave the cave were a group of navy SEALs who helped with the rescue.

"We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what," they said on Facebook. "All the thirteen Wild Boars are now out of the cave."

'Everyone will welcome them back'

Half of the boys attend school in Mae Sai, a community that borders Myanmar and lies just a few kilometres from the cave. Some cross the border each day to go to school, a routine that Wassana Saebaew, one of their classmates, knows well. 

Wassana Saebaew lives in Myanmar and each day crosses the border to go to school in Mae Sai, Thailand. Six of the 12 boys on the soccer team attend her school. (Briar Stewart/CBC)

In recent days, the 15-year-old and her classmates have found it increasingly tough to concentrate on their studies and upcoming exams. All they wanted to talk about was whether there were any updates about the team.

Despite all the risks associated with the rescue, she says she never had any doubt that the boys would all make it out.

"We know that we can help, and they can be safe," she said in English.

"I think everyone will welcome them back with the love."

This photo tweeted by Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk shows efforts underway to rescue the trapped team members. Musk had proposed possible technological solutions for extracting the boys while they were trapped and travelled to Thailand this week. (Courtesy of Elon Musk via Associated Press)


Briar Stewart is a correspondent for CBC News. She has been covering Canada and beyond for more than 15 years and can be reached at or on Twitter @briarstewart