Updated at 4:26 p.m. ET on 2018-07-10
Wild cheers resonated across Thailand on Tuesday after news broke that Navy divers had pulled out the last four of 12 boys as well as their soccer coach from the labyrinth of a flooded cave, ending a high-risk rescue that gripped the world for more than two weeks.
The beginning of the end of a final push to bring home the boys - ages 11 to 16 - and their 25-year-old coach happened in quick succession after the ninth boy was taken out of the cave, blinking into daylight for the first time in 18 days.
“We got all five back safely,” Narongsak Osotthanakorn, head of the search and rescue operations, told reporters. “We did something nobody thought possible. … We are successful.”
“Hooyah!” reporters chanted after Narongsak’s briefing, using a slogan adopted by Thai Navy SEALs from their U.S. counterparts.
The last phase of the rescue mission took place after four boys were extracted on Sunday and four more on Monday.
Floodwaters spawned by monsoon rains trapped the group on June 23 when they ventured into the massive Tham Luang cave, a popular tourist attraction in the country’s mountainous northern province of Chiang Rai.
British divers found them huddling in a dark, flooded chamber nine days later, almost 5 km (3.1 miles) from the cave’s entrance.
“Eat, eat, eat,” one of the surprised boys told the two divers who used flashlights while taking the first video since they were reported missing.
Officials said that although British divers Rick Stanton and John Volanthen were credited in the U.K. media for discovering the group in the dark maze of claustrophobic caverns, Thailand’s Navy SEALs were central to the rescue effort.
The SEALs posted a message and a picture of men linking arms on their Facebook page on Sunday, vowing to bring the group back safely.
“We, the Thai team and the international team, will bring the Wild Boars home,” read the message, referring to the boys’ Moo Pa Academy soccer team.
By early Tuesday evening, the SEALs page said: “We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science or what. All the 13 Wild Boars are now out of the cave.”
Dozens of government workers shook hands with soldiers and volunteers, journalists cheered and people on the street clapped their hands as helicopters roared overhead and ambulances transporting the boys arrived at a hospital in Chiang Rai, near the border of Laos and Myanmar.
A few hours after the last four boys and their coach were guided out, four SEALs who had stayed with the boys left the muddy cave as well, officials said. The four divers included a medic who monitored the boys’ health and gave them high-protein, ready-to-eat meals.
But one of the hundreds of volunteers died during preparations for the daring rescue.
While officials worked out the group’s extraction plan last Friday morning, retired Thai Navy SEAL Saman Kunan, 38, died as he placed compressed-air tanks along an exit route. Officials said he ran out of oxygen himself.
Saman’s body, found about half a mile from where the boys were trapped, was brought to the surface by another diver, officials said.
“His job was to deliver oxygen, but he did not have enough on his way back,” Pasakorn Boonyalak, Chiang Rai’s deputy governor, told reporters.
The rescue’s final phase involved 19 divers, backed by more than 100 men, Narongsak told reporters Tuesday morning.
The complicated attempt to free the Wild Boars set off a challenge for rescuers that included 90 divers, among them 50 foreigners, who had to navigate pitch-black terrain and negotiate strong currents. More than half of the divers were from the United States, Britain and other nations, officials said.
The rescue plan, in which each boy was to be tethered to one of the two divers who guided him out, riveted the nation but raised questions from a cave-diving expert.
Certified cave diver Kera “Puff” Rolsen, in her Twitter feed, said three of her friends had died while swimming through dark, muddy tunnels.
“Have you seen someone panic? Genuine, gut-shaking … panic? I have and it’s uncontrollable,” she said. “Now you are asking terrified, starving young men to enter the scariest environment imaginable.”
“Every young man that emerges from that cave alive will be a testament to the indomitable human spirit: The ability to overcome the more extreme of circumstances, the will to survive,” she said.
Narongsak, the chief of the rescue mission, told reporters last Friday that divers did not immediately attempt an evacuation because the boys, most of whom did not know how to swim, had not learned adequate diving skills
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha told reporters that the boys were “medically sedated” to reduce the chance that they would suffer an anxiety attack on their way out of the dark cave, The Guardian newspaper reported.
When asked about the drugs, Prayuth insisted the boys were not given an anesthetic, just anti-anxiety medication, without specifying which kind, the Australian newspaper said.
“Who the hell would give that to a kid?” Prayuth told reporters, referring to an anesthetic drug. The boys were instead given the same type of drugs he uses when he is at the shooting range with his guns, he said, without elaborating.
The boys were given “something to make them not too nervous and panic,” he said.