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Commemorations mark first anniversary of cave rescue

CHIANG RAI province on Sunday hosted a running and cycling event to commemorate last year’s rescue of members of the Wild Boars Football Club from the flooded Tham Luang Cave and to pay tribute to diver Saman Gunan, who lost his life during the dramatic effort.

Commemorations mark first anniversary of cave rescue
Participants warm up before the start of a marathon at the visitor centre for the Tham Luang cave, where 12 boys from the “Wild Boars” football team and their coach were trapped last year, in the Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province. // AFP PHOTO

Some of the rescued youngsters were among the participants, as were Army doctor Lt-Colonel Pak Loharachun, Phayao Governor Narongsak Osotthanakorn (Chiang Rai’s governor at the time), Saman’s widow Waleephon Gunan, Navy SEALS commander Rear Admiral Apakorn Youkongkaew and British cave explorer Vern Unsworth.

Runners and cyclists followed a route past key locales in the drawn-out rescue effort, such as the places where water pumps struggled to drain the cave complex and where the hundreds of volunteers pitched their tents.

Commemorations mark first anniversary of cave rescue
Members of the “Wild Boars” football team and their coach pose before participating in a marathon at the visitor centre for the Tham Luang cave, where the 12 boys and their coach were trapped last year, in the Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province. // AFP PHOTO

They passed the site where helicopters landed while ferrying personnel in and the rescued boys out, and Sa Morakot, a vast pond of green water that was formerly known as Khun Nam Nang Non.

The commemorative event – which raised funds for the cave’s development and for purchasing rescue equipment for Mae Sai district – took place exactly a year after the 12 youngsters, then age 11 to 16, and their coach Ekkapol Chantawong, then 25, entered the Tham Luang Cave.

Commemorations mark first anniversary of cave rescue
Participants run in a marathon near the Tham Luang cave, where 12 boys from the “Wild Boars” football team and their coach were trapped last year, in the Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province. // AFP PHOTO

The group quickly became trapped by rising water levels. The daring, unprecedented mission to extract them through twisting flooded passageways captivated the world for 18 nail-biting days. The mission to manoeuvre the boys, heavily sedated so they wouldn’t panic, out to safety was completed on July 10, 2018.

The nearly three-week rescue mission also created heroes of various nationalities, including Saman, a former Navy SEAL diver who died after running out of oxygen while trying to establish an air line to the footballers.

Saman’s was the only fatality during the mission.

Narongsak, who led the joint command centre that oversaw the rescue, said he would propose that commemorative events be held every year to remind people of the sacrifices involved and the merits of hope and patience in the face of uncertainty.

“A key lesson is that success is far more difficult if people don’t follow the rules or have a set plan. I also believe that our strong nation, religion and monarchy also helped make the mission a success,” Narongsak said.

Ekkapol told the participants that his life had changed little since the episode and he continues to train young footballers.

“What happened still takes my breath away whenever I think of it,” he said. “I thank everyone who helped us get out of the cave safely.”

Rear Admiral Apakorn said he too retained vivid memories of the event and was deeply grateful to deceased hero Saman. “Diving in a cave is dangerous, but Saman made the ultimate sacrifice to save others, so he deserves to be the Thai people’s and the world’s hero.”

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