'They have become the world's kids': Locals awed after Thai cave rescue captured world's attention
Members of the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach are now recuperating in hospital
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."
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.
'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.
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.
"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.
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."