The 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach and the rescuers who helped extract them from a cave this summer were honored by Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha in a lavish ceremony Thursday.
The boys, members of a youth soccer team called the Wild Boars, and their coach spent nearly three weeks underground before an international team of divers and cave experts rescued them from the cave in July.
They were also reintroduced to many divers for the first time since they were all inside the cave.
The event, called “Tham Luang Incredible Mission: the Global Agenda,” featured a fake small cave tunnel that the boys briefly walked through, surrounded by cameras.
Members of the Wild Boars again spoke to the media about their ordeal, the second time they’ve done so since being freed.
“We had to stay focused. We also discussed about how we could get out,” said Ekapol Chantawong, the team’s coach.
Most of the group said their lives have returned to normal. Adul Sam-on, the boy who responded in English when divers first found the group, said he was “happy to go back to school and see his friends.”
“It’s pretty awesome,” Christopher Pearson, one of the volunteers with the rescue effort, told CNN at the event.
“I was with one of the divers, and I tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘They’re there because of you.’ ”
The soccer team entered the cave after going for a bike ride, only to be trapped by rising floodwaters on June 23. The boys and their coach were found alive more than a week later, deep in the cave network and hundreds of meters below the surface.
But hope quickly gave way to the realization that any rescue mission would be fraught with risk. Divers involved in the rescue described the conditions as some of the most extreme they have ever faced. Dark, muddy water made it nearly impossible to see through the narrow cave channel.
The boys didn’t even know how to swim.
The mood on the ground took an even darker turn after a former Thai navy SEAL, Saman Kunan, died while returning from an operation to deliver oxygen tanks to the cave.
But with monsoon rains on the way, rescuers decided to act.
The boys were brought out in groups of four, one by one, each accompanied by two divers. The coach, the last of the group, was brought out July 10.
After leaving the cave, all were quarantined in the hospital for a few days as a precautionary measure. Three were treated for minor cases of pneumonia, and the 13 were discharged after about a week.
Many of the boys were ordained as novice monks and had their heads shaved to honor the late SEAL. Adul, who is Christian, chose instead to participate in a church service.
CNN’s Kocha Olarn reported from Bangkok, and Joshua Berlinger wrote from Hong Kong.