CHIANG RAI, Thailand – The Thai and foreign rescuers of the youth soccer team trapped in a cave for 18 days began heading home Thursday, as doctors said the boys they saved have so far not shown any significant ill effects from their ordeal.
Members of the Thai navy SEAL team, who were among the first searchers to penetrate the watery depth of Tham Luang Nang Non cave and the last divers out, flew to their base at Sattahip on the Gulf of Thailand, where they received a heroes' welcome. The ceremony was capped with their commander leading a rousing round of the navy cheer 'Hooyah!' that became a trademark of their never-say-die effort to extricate the boys.
Foreign helpers, including some of the world's best cave divers, also began travelling home.
Thai officials have been generous with their praise of foreign volunteers who were essential in the complicated search and rescue operation, including the two British divers who were the first to discover where the members of the Wild Boar soccer club were sheltering.
One of them, John Volanthen, and another British diver, Jason Mallison, met before they departed with Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who presented each of them with a souvenir medal, a polo shirt and a lacquered wooden box marked with an official emblem.
"Jason has a 18-month-old baby but he drove to Heathrow airport right away to Thailand after receiving a call from us," Tourism Minister Weerasak Kowsurat told reporters after seeing the two divers off. "We're so thankful that he sacrificed being with his family to be with us."
"For John, the person, who first discovered the boys, he has such impressive character. He didn't feel that he was a hero. He said he just came to save the kids. We feel so in debt of gratitude for his help this time."
The boys were described as generally being in normal condition in a Chiang Rai hospital Thursday, though their levels of recuperation varied because they were removed from the cave over three days.
Their relatives are being allowed to visit with them while wearing hospital gowns and masks after earlier being kept away from the boys for fear one group might spread infections to the other.
The four boys rescued Sunday have normal heart rates and no fever, and the two of them with lung infections are improving, said Jedsada Chokdumrongsuk, permanent secretary of the Public Health Ministry.
Two of the four rescued Monday have mild fevers, the secretary said in a statement. Three of the five in the last group have fevers that are easing, and three have middle ear infections.
All of the group are receiving antibiotics. Jessada also said a psychiatrist was attending to the boys, who are sleeping well and are not showing symptoms of stress.
The 12 Wild Boars players and their coach had entered the cave to go exploring June 23 but monsoon rains filled the tight passageways, blocking their escape. They were found 10 days later, huddled on a small, dry shelf just above the water, and divers and other international rescuers plotted the complex mission to rescue the team before more rain came.
Highlighting the dangers, a former Thai navy SEAL volunteering to work on the rescue died on July 7 during a supply mission inside the cave.
Chiang Rai province acting Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn lauded the cooperation between Thai and international rescuers.
"The situation went beyond just being a rescue mission and became a symbol of unity among mankind," he said Wednesday night. "Everyone worked together without discrimination of race or religion as the ultimate goal was to save the youth football team."