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The 12 Thai boys rescued from a flooded cave smiled and joked Wednesday in their first public appearance after being discharged from the hospital.
The young soccer players, aged 11 to 16, bounced a ball as they appeared in front of reporters in their Wild Boars team shirts.
They were individually applauded as they stood, bowed, and introduced themselves before taking turns to recount their extraordinary ordeal.
One boy described the moment he realized a rescuer had arrived.
“It happened in the evening,” he told the news conference. “We heard people speaking. We were not sure if it was a hallucination then we went quieter and realized it was real.”
The player said he was “startled” by the rescuer when he emerged from the water. “It was a miracle," he added. "It was the first glimpse of hope."
"I was afraid I wouldn't get home, that I would get scolded by my mother."
The boy said that he had been so hungry after being stranded for 10 days that he could "only think about food."
The players and their 25-year-old coach were safely brought out of the Tham Luang mountain cave complex near the border with Myanmar last week after a perilous rescue operation that drew global media attention and hundreds of journalists to the scene.
The boys have been in the hospital in the northern town of Chiang Rai since they were rescued but have been pronounced generally healthy by doctors, aside from some minor infections.
“They are strong physically as well as mentally,” a spokesman told reporters, adding that they were all expected to return home later Wednesday. “Everybody has shown determination to face life in the future.”
The boys had planned to explore the cavern for about an hour after soccer practice on June 23. But a rainy-season downpour flooded the tunnels, trapping them.
Two British divers found them on July 2 squatting on a mound in a flooded chamber several miles inside the complex. Rescuers then had to figure out how to get them out through the tunnels, some of which were full of fast-flowing floodwaters.
The players said they had not taken food with them as they did not expect to be in the cave for long. They survived by drinking water from stalactites.
One said he was initially only concerned with being late getting home. "I was afraid I wouldn't get home, that I would get scolded by my mother," the boy joked.
A framed photo of the Thai navy SEAL who died during the rescue operation was shown to reporters and will be presented to his grieving family. It was covered in handwritten tributes from the players.
“Thank you from the bottom of our heart,” one of the messages read. “Our deep condolences to your family.”
The boys said their ordeal had made them more determined to realize their dream of becoming professional players and to make the most of their lives.
Another was cheered after saying: “I still want to be a professional soccer player but I also want to be a SEAL.”
The Boars' assistant coach said their "team spirit remained strong" and that many of the players hoped to be ordained together as monks.
Their dramatic story is already set for a retelling by Hollywood, with two production companies looking to put together movies about the boys and their rescue.
Jon M. Chu, the director of “Crazy Rich Asians,” said he was working to develop a film about the rescue in order to prevent a Hollywood "whitewash" of the story.
Authorities said the team members took part in “confidence-building exercises” prior to their release from the hospital.
“They will definitely be able to conduct their normal life,” one health official told journalists. “The doctors and nurses are under more stress than the team."
Passakorn Bunyalak, deputy governor of the province of Chiang Rai, said the boys would be sent home after the news conference and he was requesting that their parents and journalists hold off interviews for about 30 days.
"At this early stage, we are trying to get media not to bother the boys," he told Reuters on Tuesday, adding that they were protected by Thailand's Child Protection Act, which protects those under 18 from media coverage that would cause emotional injury.