Twelve boys and their football coach who survived a highly dangerous and dramatic rescue from a flooded Thai cave spoke publicly of their incredible ordeal for the first time on Wednesday at a press conference that was beamed around the world.
The "Wild Boars" team members looked healthy and happy as they answered questions about the nine days they spent in the dark before being discovered by members of an international rescue team.
A packed crowd greeted the youngsters after they were discharged from hospital in Chiang Rai, and watched as they played with footballs on a small makeshift pitch before taking their seats.
"It is a miracle," Wild Boars footballer Adul Sam-on, 14, said of the rescue, as the boys were gently quizzed about their terrifying experience.
Coach Ekkapol Chantawong said the relative strength or weakness of the boys did not determine the order in which they were evacuated. He added that the boys would ordain as monks in honour of the former Navy Seal who died during the mission.
The team had no food at all until they were found deep in the complex, surviving only on water that dripped down the side of the cave.
But doctors said all 13 were in good physical and mental health after recuperating in hospital.
The briefing was tightly controlled, with experts warning of possible long-term distress from the more than two weeks they spent trapped inside a cramped, flooded chamber of the Tham Luang cave in Mae Sai district in Chiang Rai province..
The Public Relations Department in Chiang Rai solicited questions from news outlets in advance, which were forwarded to psychiatrists for screening.
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha urged media on Wednesday to be "cautious in asking unimportant questions" that could cause unspecified damage.
Interest in the saga has been intense, with film production houses already eyeing a Hollywood treatment of the drama.
Doctors have advised families of the players, aged 11 to 16, that they should avoid letting them contact journalists for at least one month.
Families of the youngsters have eagerly awaited their homecoming.
Khameuy Promthep, the grandmother of 13-year-old Dom, one of the boys rescued from the cave, told AFP in an interview at their family shop in Mae Sai near the Myanmar border on Wednesday that she was very excited.
"This is the happiest day of my life," she said.
People react as the 12 soccer players and their coach who were rescued from a flooded cave arrive for their news conference in the northern province of Chiang Rai, on Wednesday. (EPA photo)
The daring Thai-led international effort to rescue the team captivated the world after the football team walked into the cave on June 23 and were trapped by rising floodwaters.
After nine days without food, they were found emaciated and huddled in a group on a muddy ledge by British divers several kilometres inside Tham Luang.
Rescuers debated on the best plan to bring them out but ultimately decided on a risky operation that involved diving them through waterlogged passages while they were sedated to keep them calm and carrying them out in military-grade stretchers.
Not even the foreign cave diving specialists who took part were sure the mission would work and many expressed relief when it was all over after the final five were rescued on July 10.
Coach Ekapol Chantawong introduces himself during the news conference in the northern province of Chiang Rai on Wednesday. (Reuters photo)
Further attention was drawn to the rescue by a highly public spat between entrepreneur Elon Musk and a British caver who took part in the rescue.
Tesla CEO Musk called Vernon Unsworth a "pedo" in an extraordinary social media attack, after the caving expert had ridiculed Musk's plan to recover the trapped group using a miniature submarine.
Mr Musk on Wednesday apologised to Mr Unsworth over the slur, for which he had provided no justification or explanation.
"(H)is actions against me do not justify my actions against him, and for that I apologise to Mr. Unsworth and to the companies I represent as leader," Mr Musk wrote on Twitter. "The fault is mine and mine alone."
Mr Musk's attack on Mr Unsworth had drawn widespread outrage and briefly sent shares in Tesla tumbling. Mr Unsworth told AFP he may take legal action against Musk over the offensive tweet.
The presenter of the televised news conference said the boys would return home on Wednesday night for the first time since emerging from the cave.