By Amy Sawitta Lefevre
CHIANG RAI, Thailand (Reuters) - "Fight on, don't despair": the 12 boys and their soccer coach rescued from a flooded Thai cave complex described on Wednesday how they survived on nothing but dripping water, and even tried to dig their way out.
The Wild Boars team were making their first public appearance after the long ordeal, waving, smiling and offering Thai traditional "wai" greetings on a national TV broadcast.
One of the boys, 14-year-old Adul Sam-on recalled the moment when two British divers found the trapped group on July 2, squatting in a flooded chamber several kilometers within the cave complex.
"It was magical," he said. "I had to think a lot before I could answer their questions," added Adul, who speaks English. "Everybody was happy, it was the most hopeful moment in 10 days."
On Wednesday doctors, relatives and friends - some in yellow traditional clothes - greeted the boys, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach. The team were kitted out in T-shirts emblazoned with a red graphic of a wild boar, and kicked footballs gently on the TV set.
"Bringing the Wild Boars Home", read a banner in Thai welcoming them on the set, designed to resemble a soccer pitch, complete with goalposts and nets.
A crowd of media and onlookers were penned behind barricades as the boys arrived in vans from the hospital where they had stayed since their rescue from the complex in Thailand's northern province of Chiang Rai.
"I told everyone fight on, don't despair," said one boy, describing how the group had battled to stay alive.
Their discovery triggered the rescue effort that brought them all to safety over three days, organized by Thai navy SEALs and a global team of cave-diving experts.
The order in which the boys eventually left the cave did not depend on the state of their health, said their coach Ekkapol Chantawong, whose efforts have been credited by some parents with keeping the boys alive.
"The ones whose homes are the furthest went first, so they could tell everyone that the boys were fine," he added.
"WE ONLY DRANK WATER"
The group had planned to explore the Tham Luang caves for about an hour after soccer practice on June 23. But a rainy season downpour flooded the tunnels, trapping them.
"We took turns digging at the cave walls," Ekkapol said. "We didn't want to wait around until authorities found us."
One of the boys added: "We used stones to dig in the cave. We dug 3 to 4 meters." That represents a depth of 10-13 feet.
Their efforts were to no avail, Ekkapol said, adding: "Almost everyone can swim. Some aren't strong swimmers, however."
The group, who had eaten before going into the caves, took no food on an excursion that was supposed to last only an hour, and had to subsist on water dripping from stalactites, he said.
"We only drank water," said one of the boys, nicknamed Tee. "On the first day we were OK, but after two days we started feeling tired."
The team's youngest member, who goes by the name Titan, added: "I had no strength. I tried not to think about food so I didn't get more hungry."
Thoughts of their parents also preoccupied the boys, with one admitting, "I was afraid. That I wouldn't go home and I would get scolded by my mother."
The boys, who returned home on Wednesday night, all apologized for being naughty, admitting to having told their parents only that they were going to soccer practice, but not about the plans to go into the cave.
The boys, who sported crisp haircuts, had gained 3 kg (6.6 lb) each on average since the rescue, and ran through confidence-building exercises before Wednesday's event, said hospital director Chaiwetch Thanapaisal.
The operation to extract the team involved a core team of 18, including 13 foreign divers. The boys, fitted with thick wetsuits and full-face scuba masks, were guided through dark, flooded passageways toward the mouth of the cave.
The first part of the journey involved some diving. For the last part, the boys were put in green plastic toboggans and carried through.
The rescue effort drew global media attention and hundreds of journalists.
Officials have asked that the boys' privacy be respected once they are home. "We want the boys to have regular lives and go back to school and ... to have time with families and activities they like," said psychologist Patchaneewan Inta.
The moment was bittersweet, as two of the boys held up a framed pencil sketch of Samarn Kunan, 38, a former Thai navy diver who died while he worked underwater, laying oxygen tanks along a potential exit route.
"Everyone was very sad," said Ekkapol, adding that the boys would spend time as novice Buddhist monks to honor the diver's memory.
Hugs and tears greeted many of the boys when they made their way home. In Mae Sai district, where the cave is located, relatives hugged Peerapat Sompiangjai, 16, before blessing him with water as he entered his home.
The scene was repeated across other homes.
Earlier on the televised show many of the boys said that they would not set foot inside the cave again.
(Additional reporting by Pracha Hariraksapitak Chayut Setboonsarng, Patpicha Tanakasempipat and Panarat Thepgumpanat in BANGKOK; Vorasit Satienlerk in CHIANG RAI and Jiraporn Kuhakan in MAE SAI; Writing by Clarence Fernandez; Editing by Darren Schuettler and David Stamp)