Facebook/ Ekkapol Chantawong
A relaxed and happy soccer team’s afternoon outing was set for enjoyment. Exploring an underground cave system was going to be hugely exciting. Part of their training was to expect the unexpected on the soccer field. Suddenly an ominous roar of rushing flood water rudely interrupted their excitement. Trapped in a cave with no exit and hardly any food was daunting and panicky. Would the rushing tide engulf them and could they survive?
Facebook/ Ekkapol Chantawong
Ekkapol Chantowong was only twenty-five years old. He had taken on the training of the Wild Boars Junior soccer team. He encouraged the boys to always do their best on and off the field. They had gone on an afternoon hike after soccer practice and the cave exploration was meant to help them grow in confidence. As a former Buddhist Monk, he took the interests of the boys’ seriously, but even he questioned whether they could make it.
Ekkapol was concerned. Some of the younger boys were showing signs of panic. At first, the rising rushing water had seemed a novelty and part of the adventure. Now the rising flood blocked the entrance they had come in and was gradually forcing them further up the underground embankment. Stress was evident and he knew that panic could become uncontrollable. He considered what he should do to restore calm amongst the team.
Some of the boys had mobile phones. Ekkapol thought it would be a good idea to light up the cavern they had moved into, away from the rising water. He asked them to switch their phone flashlight on. The gloom of the cave was instantly replaced with the soft glow of several tiny beams. Instantly little faces were lit up even more than the surroundings. The challenge was whether this could last.
Ekkapol suggested that they switch off their lights together. Instant darkness enveloped them. As a coach, he knew that he had to keep their morale up. He was concerned about a quivering little gasp from one of the lads at the sudden darkness. What alternative could he offer? Switch on a few mobiles again and reassess their situation? Perhaps they could swim out? A few boys stripped down and entered the racing water tentatively.
The water was still rising swiftly and the swimmers were battling. Ekkapol called them out immediately as it was far too dangerous in the turbulent water. By now he estimated that they were already a few miles into the caverns and nearly nightfall. The only other option was to try and find another exit and rest for the night. They again scrambled up searching for safety and a place of refuge.
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The team clambered up the side of the cavern with a few sparse and faltering lights to show them the way. Despite this, a couple of the lads slipped or tripped until they found a secure ledge amongst the stalagmites. Ekkapol regarded this as a blessing. He quietly encouraged them and set their jagged nerves at rest. He invited them to pray with him if they could, wondering what their response would be.
They willingly joined in prayers for their safety. Desperately, the boys attempted to contact home. But they had no success in doing so. Parents back above ground waited to hear what was to become of their children. All in all, the experience was utterly harrowing. Ekkapol grasped for any inspiration he could find. Luckily, they had salvaged a small amount of food from their packed provisions. Ekkapol blessed the food, and the team shared what may be their last meal available.
Facebook/ Ekkapol Chantawong
After a very fitful sleep, the team awoke sore, hungry and uncomfortable. Ekkapol wondered if they should search for another way out. They climbed even higher amongst the stalactites and found a crevice. They began digging and scraping but were soon exhausted. They found water dripping down the limestone formations which proved a lifesaver. The gnawing hunger became uppermost in their thoughts. Was it possible to continue without food or hope Ekkapol wondered?
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The next few days were hard going with the team becoming increasingly desperate. Ekkapol suggested that they learn to deal with their stress by calm meditation. As a Buddhist Monk, this was second nature to him. He had been orphaned early in life and sent to a monastery by his aunt at the age of nine. He’d learned to deal with his fears by simple meditation. He encouraged the team to follow his example.
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After many days of being imprisoned in the bowels of the earth, they almost missed the call of their rescuers. Some of the boys were still fitfully excavating the escape tunnel now almost four meters long. Their noise almost drowned out the voice of the Navy Seal Diver calling for them. They had forgotten that their parents and indeed the whole of Thailand were anxiously awaiting their rescue. Was it really a voice of hope?
The diver emerged from the floodwaters with his underwater torch flooding them with light. After the stygian darkness, it brought relief and joy. The whole junior team crowded around the diver hugging him and one another. All too soon he had to return, promising relief and food. Ekkapol wrote a short note to the boys’ parents, begging their prayers and forgiveness. The diver handed out a few energy bars and some candy hoping it would help.
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When the diver left he placed a small diving lamp at the water’s edge as a beacon. He promised he and others would be back within the day. Ekkapol and the team weakened and emaciated continued to encourage one another. Meditation had helped them cope with the darkness and hunger. At the time of their rescue, meditation would help them reflect that, when we are weak, we can be strong.
The ordeal wasn’t over. Ekkapol continued encouraging and helping the boys cope. The Navy Seal divers brought relief and deliverance. Sadly, however, a diver succumbed to the life-threatening exposure. The team was able to reflect upon the cost of sacrificial love. A life was given for their own deliverance. Touching scenes of their commitment to the memory of one of their rescuers followed. Local and International TV media covered every angle. A nation was changed forever.
Footage of the rescue continued worldwide. Ekkapol and some of the boys were stateless. The Thai government is now considering granting them citizenship. The team now wish to become novice Monks. They were simply honoring their heroic coach. They also sought to honor a diver who gave his all to rescue them. Their rescue and deep spiritual commitment continue unabated. Humanity, in general, has been inspired through a dedicated coach and his team.