Chiang Rai: Twelve boys and their football coach who survived a highly dangerous and dramatic rescue from a flooded Thai cave spoke publicly of their incredible ordeal for the first time on Wednesday at a press conference that was beamed around the world.
The "Wild Boars" team members looked healthy and happy as they answered questions about the nine days they spent in the dark before being discovered by members of an international rescue team.
A packed crowd greeted the youngsters after they were discharged from hospital in Chiang Rai, and watched as they played with footballs on a small makeshift pitch before taking their seats.
"It is a miracle," Wild Boars footballer Adul Sam-on, 14, said of the rescue, as the boys were gently quizzed about their terrifying experience.
The team had no food at all until they were found deep in the complex, surviving only on the rainwater that dripped down the side of the cave for nine days.
"We tried to dig out as we thought we cannot only wait for authorities to get us," coach Ekkapol Chantawong said.
One of the team members said they "drank water that fell from the rocks" before being found by two British divers nine days after going inside the cave on June 23.
But doctors said all 13 were in good physical and mental health after recuperating in hospital.
The briefing was tightly controlled, with experts warning of possible long-term distress from the more than two weeks they spent trapped inside a cramped, flooded chamber of the Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand.
The public relations department in Chiang Rai solicited questions from news outlets in advance, which were forwarded to psychiatrists for screening.
Thailand's junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha urged media Wednesday to be "cautious in asking unimportant questions" that could cause unspecified damage.
Interest in the saga has been intense, with film production houses already eyeing a Hollywood treatment of the drama.
Doctors have advised families of the players, aged 11 to 16, that they should avoid letting them contact journalists for at least one month.
'Happiest day of my life'
Families of the youngsters have eagerly awaited their homecoming. Khameuy Promthep, the grandmother of 13-year-old Dom, one of the boys rescued from the cave, told AFP in an interview at their family shop in Mae Sai near the Myanmar border on Wednesday that she was very excited.
"This is the happiest day of my life," she said.
The daring Thai-led international effort to rescue the team captivated the world after the football team walked into the cave on June 23 and were trapped by rising floodwaters.
After nine days without food, they were found emaciated and huddled in a group on a muddy ledge by British divers several kilometres inside Tham Luang.
Rescuers debated on the best plan to bring them out but ultimately decided on a risky operation that involved diving them through waterlogged passages while they were sedated to keep them calm and carrying them out in military-grade stretchers.
Not even the foreign cave diving specialists who took part were sure the mission would work and many expressed relief when it was all over after the final five were rescued on July 10.