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After more than two weeks stranded in a flooded cave in Thailand and three days of rescue operations, Thai authorities confirm that all twelve of the youth soccer players and their 25-year-old coach have been extracted from the cave alive. The boys went missing on June 23, when they entered a restricted cave while on a team hike and were trapped as the seasonal rains flooded the only exit. Search teams scoured the area for nine days before finally locating the boys in a narrow, convoluted system of tunnels.

Over the course of three days, an international team of divers extracted the boys by guiding them through the tunnels. The boys were wearing full-face oxygen masks and diving suits to keep them warm while submerged in the water for six hours. Four boys were removed Sunday, another four on Monday and the final four along with their coach were extracted Tuesday morning.

The initial plan

The boys were located in a section of cave 1 km underground and 2 km into the tunnel system. The dive between the cave mouth and the team’s location is dangerous, narrow, jagged in places and six hours each direction for professional divers. When they were first located, rescuers seemed to be at a loss as to how they were going to extract the boys. Initially, authorities said the channels were too narrow for tandem dives and there was no alternative exit for the trapped team.

The only options seemed to be either teaching the boys how to dive at a professional level — a task made harder by the fact none of them are strong swimmers — or wait until October when the rain waters would recede and allow them to walk out of the dry cave. Neither were attractive options.

An international effort

Even before the boys were located, the search and rescue effort became a coordinated international affair. Diving teams from more than six different countries helped with the initial search and more international teams came on board once the boys were located and the complexity of the rescue became evident. The group of expert divers included 40 from within Thailand and another 50 from other nations.

Elon Musk even offered his services, visiting the cave and proposing a small “kid-sized submarine” as a potential rescue option. It appears the submarine was not used for any of the rescues, but Musk said he would be leaving the vessel — named the Wild Boar after the boys’ soccer team — in case it could be of use in the future.

Days of waiting

It’s been an agonizing few days of waiting and uncertainty for the parents of the missing boys. When the first set of four was rescued on Sunday, parents were not initially notified which of the boys were out of the cave. Authorities were tight-lipped about the selection process, saying only that the healthiest boys would be extracted first.

They later shared that the boys would be kept in quarantine for a period of time to protect their weakened systems, treat malnutrition and address any other medical issues. There are also concerns that the boys may have developed certain infections from the soil that need to be tested for before they can make contact with their families. Some of the boys have been able to wave at relatives through a glass barrier, but the Thai Health Department has said there will be “no hugging or touching” until all health tests are completed.

A bittersweet ending

Until all 12 boys and their coach were safely above ground, it was a very real concern that they might not all make it out alive. Their survival is an overwhelmingly positive outcome in a story that had so many opportunities for things to go wrong. It should be noted, however, that this successful rescue operation was not without its costs.

Thai Navy SEAL diver Saman Gunan drowned last week on his return dive after delivering supplies to the stranded boys. Experts theorize that Gunan ran out of oxygen on his way back because the lack of oxygen in the cave air prevented him from replenishing the levels in his blood before making his return trip. He is being lauded worldwide as a hero for giving his life providing aid for the stranded children.

What now?

Now it’s recovery time. The boys are all malnourished and dehydrated and some are suffering from lung infections. They are being treated at the Chiang Rai Prachanukroh Hospital and will all remain under observation for at least 48 hours. Once their physical well-being is taken care of, officials are concerned about the mental toll 16 days of isolation will have on these boys. They are currently devising a plan to address any trauma this experience might have caused.

For the time being, the health department has said that the boys are “good and happy” now that they are out of the cave and are humourously requesting various foods like fried rice and fried chicken. They are currently only being fed congee (Chinese rice soup) with the first group of four starting on solid foods Tuesday.

Tuesday afternoon, local time, the final four Thai Navy SEALs that were providing medical aid to the boys while in the cave, emerged from the tunnels. That marks the official end to the rescue mission with all personnel out of the cave system.