Every morning since their classmates disappeared, children at the Mae Sai Prasitsart School have sat in long rows in the main courtyard, their heads bowed and hands clasped, praying for their friends to be found.
Nine days in, those prayers were answered, when divers discovered the boys alive and well, though hungry, huddled together four kilometers inside a cave network, surrounded by flood water.
“The first time I heard they had been found, I couldn’t say a word. I was so happy to hear that my friends are safe,” says Puwadet Kumngoen, a 14-year-old classmate and friend of the missing boys, six of whom attend Prasitsart.
Students of the school, which sits nestled at the foot of lush mountains separating Thailand and Myanmar, are quick to recall the shock of learning their friends were missing.
The Tham Luang Nang Non caves are known locally as off-limits, a dangerous place where parents warn their children not to go into, especially during monsoon season.
“I was very worried about what would happen to them. The caves are a dark and scary place. I wouldn’t dare to ever go in there,” says 14-year-old Kittichoke Konkaew, whose close friend, Nuttawut Takumsong, is among the 12 young teammates and their coach who inexplicably defied local warnings and wandered deep into the cave.
Almost two weeks on, they remain trapped in the labyrinth network of underground tunnels, their only passageway out blocked by seasonal flood waters.
Both Puwadet and Kittichoke play on the same football team as the missing boys, and may have been with them if they hadn’t skipped practice on the day of the trip. Now even the idea of playing football makes the boys feel sad.
“I hope to hold hands with [Nuttawut] when he comes out and ask to play soccer with him again,” says Puwadet, his voice trailing off.
In the immediate days that followed the boys’ disappearance, life in this small close-knit school of several hundred became almost unbearable.
“My students were sad. They cried when they heard about the news,” says Nuttawut’s teacher, Worawit Chaiga. “It was all anyone talked about.”
The young teacher said he went back to the cave every night to ask for information about the missing boys.
“I couldn’t believe this would happen to my students. In the classroom, I brought this subject up to teach students. You see, look at this event … it happened because they were not being careful, their actions has caused a lot of worry and create all kinds of issues to all,” he says.
For nine days, the missing group had no food, no water and no way of communicating with the outside world. As the days dragged on, the seriousness of their classmates’ situation weighed heavily on the minds of Prasitsart’s young students.
“Everyone in school was so very worried. We catch up with the news every single day. But there’s nothing we can do, only send positive thoughts to the missing boys,” says teacher Manutsanit Jongpunyanon.
The sense of euphoria generated by news of the boys’ discovery was especially acute at the nearby Ban Wiangphan school, a small, neat collection of buildings, not far from the town’s main market area.
In grainy video shot by the first rescue team to make contact with the boys, a British diver can be heard asking, “How many of you are there?”
In English, one boy answers, 13.
“I was so proud,” says Wimonchat Jittalom, the school’s enthusiastic English teacher. “Not only did he understand the question, but he was able to answer correctly!”
The boy, 14-year-old Ardoon Sam-aon, is the only pupil at the school among the missing boys.
At the front of the school, a giant mural wishing his safe recovery has been installed and adorned with photographs and messages of support. In the center of the mural, the number 13 is bracketed by a heart. “Come home soon,” it reads.
Underneath is an image of the missing children riding a giant boar out of the tunnels to safety.
Ardoon was born in neighboring Myanmar. The young soccer player was taken into care by the local Mae Sai Grace Church group when he was seven years old, the school’s director Punnawit Thepsurin says.
“He’s a good student, he earns a GPA of 3.94 out of 4.00. He’s also a good athlete, his favorite sports are soccer and volley ball. He’s very known and liked. He’s a champion,” Thepsurin says.
It’s not unusual for families to cross the border to search for work or go to school. Many in Mae Sai are members of minority groups, such as the Akka and Thai Lue, whose communities sit at the crossroads of the two countries.
Thepsurin has traveled to the entrance of the caves every night since the boys’ disappearance hoping for news of his star pupil. “From this event, we can see all Thai people care for each other,” he says confidently.
“No matter where we are from, or what religion or race we are. We gather together giving each support,” he adds.
Ardoon’s parents have since crossed into Thailand to join other families at the entrance to the cave network, where they await news from authorities.
Families come together
The boys, though safe for the moment, have been unable to communicate with their families since they were discovered Monday.
Nuttawut’s grandmother, Wankaew Pakhumma, lives in a two-story wooden house in Mae Sai, where aunties and cousins crowd around a table in the outdoor courtyard.
They fill in the time waiting for news of their boy by recalling memories of him playing football. At the local temple, they pray for his safe return and make offerings of fruit.
Pakhumma has helped to care for her grandson Nattawut since he was three months old, while his mom was away working.
Until he went missing, he would spend every weekend at her house on the outskirts of town, playing with his friends next door.
Seeing the boys’ faces on video brought to the surface by Thai Navy SEALs on Tuesday gave Pakhumma a huge emotional lift.
“I was surprised, he is getting skinny!” she says on seeing him for the first time on TV, her voice raising suddenly as her face breaks into a nervous smile.
Her biggest concern is that he is not eating enough. The thought of him going hungry fills her with dread. But she’s now confident that the expert team of international rescuers will find a way to bring her grandson home.
Next door to Pakhumma is another family whose son is among those missing. The two sets of neighbors were always close, but now they are even closer.
Every day the two families share news, walking between each other’s houses with the latest update. On the night they found out their boys were alive, every house in the neighborhood came out to celebrate. Pakhumma says she was so excited that she couldn’t sleep.
Back at Prasitsart school, classmate Puwadet Kumngoen speculates how his friend could be rescued.
During the morning’s school assembly, the assistant principal had announced that the boys were undergoing some form of specialist scuba training and soon may be able to swim out.
Experts say that it’s among the most dangerous means of exiting the caves. It takes even the most experienced divers up to five hours to swim through jagged, narrow tunnels from where the boys are to safety outside.
But Puwadet is not concerned. “Of course they can do it. They can swim. They will be fine,” he says, suddenly full of pride. His friends smile encouragingly.
“No problem,” one of them adds.
Like others in the town, Puwadet is now sure the rescue teams will be able to get his friends out, “because they are the best.”
His only real worry is that Nuttawut will not able to catch up in class: “He’s missed a lot of school.”
Lalinda Siripornmanut contributed to this report.