NEW YORK, Oct. 9 (UPI) -- The Thai soccer coach responsible for the care of twelve young boys trapped in a cave this summer said the outpouring of international support during his ordeal took him by surprise -- an operation that involved dozens of divers and hundreds of volunteers in June and July.
Ekapol Chanthawong, the assistant coach of the junior soccer team Wild Boars in rural Thailand, helped keep the teens alive with rations during their weeks-long ordeal in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave, where they were trapped after game practice.
Chanthawong, who spoke at the Asia Society on Tuesday, following a trip to Argentina, is traveling with Adul Sam-on, one of the teens, and former Chiang Rai Gov. Narongsak Osottanakorn.
"It is unbelievable that everybody, every person around the world would come and rescue us," Chanthawong told UPI through an interpreter. "I would like to express my thanks and gratitude to everybody who helped us."
The group gained rapid sympathy around the world shortly after running into bad luck. Volunteers from Thailand offered to cook and clean for the families of the missing. British rescuers signed up to dive and find the boys.
Even U.S. President Donald Trump, who continues to advocate for an anti-interventionist foreign policy across many fronts, supported the rescue efforts involving the U.S. Air Force. In July on Twitter he congratulated the Thai Navy SEALs for their "successful rescue" from the "treacherous cave in Thailand."
On behalf of the United States, congratulations to the Thai Navy SEALs and all on the successful rescue of the 12 boys and their coach from the treacherous cave in Thailand. Such a beautiful moment - all freed, great job!- Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 10, 2018
Chanthawong, formerly stateless in Thailand, spoke very little about his experiences inside the cave and gave short answers to most questions from the audience on Tuesday -- often permitting Osottanakorn to take over parts of the conversation.
The former governor, who continued to serve during emergency operations, was for weeks the face of the rescue mission -- briefing reporters while managing international expectations.
"There was a lot of pressure on my shoulders," Osottanakorn said. "By the tenth day of the mission, people didn't believe [the children] could be still alive."
The Thai official added a looming monsoon season weighed heavily on him, as efforts to locate the group were being frustrated by rising water levels and strong currents.
Inside the cave, where the group may have been digging a tunnel to the outside world, Chanthawong began to meditate. He taught the boys to do the same.
The soccer coach, a former Buddhist monk who guided the teens to stay calm, may have saved their lives, according to Osottanakorn.
"The oxygen level was 15 percent" in the cave, the Thai official said, lower than the normal 21 percent required for life.
The global chain of cooperation that unfolded in the weeks of the rescue was a testimony to the human spirit, he said.
"If we bring people to live for others I think the world will be better."
Osottanakorn also said the rescue helped give the people of Thailand confidence they can overcome odds.
The event inspired many, including the Thai government, to extend citizenship to Chanthawong and Adul, who were previously deprived of benefits and rights in rural Thailand.
Previously they would have been legally prohibited from marrying, getting a job or a bank account.
Adul, the teen who was able to communicate in English with the team of divers on the day they were rescued, has been the focus of media attention.
He said on Tuesday that he is not special.
"I am just like anybody else," he said.
Like coach Chanthawong, Adul provided short answers to a curious audience demanding to know more.
Surveillance and censorship has become common in the country under the ruling military junta, according to Reporters Without Borders.