The coach of the young soccer team trapped in a flooded Thailand cave is drawing fire for leading the boys into the mess – and accolades for his subsequent efforts to keep them alive.
Ekapol Chanthawong, 25, is the assistant coach of the Wild Boars, a team of boys ages 11 to 16. Authorities say he took the boys deep into the cave after a game June 23. Heavy rains ensued, and the route out became flooded and impassable.
The group was found by divers Monday, and authorities summarized their condition as malnourished and weak but otherwise in good health. They are being fed and a physician is among a team of Thai SEALs now with them. Rescuers, however, are still trying to determine the best way to extract them.
Thai police officials have declined to rule out negligence charges for Ekapol.
"We have to study the matter carefully first," Mae Sai Police Station chief Col. Komsan Saard-an told the online Thai outlet Khaosod.
The Bangkok Post reports the coach made sure the kids drank water dripping from cave walls and not the murky floodwaters that trapped them. And he shared his portion of the limited food rations with the group.
A Thai Navy SEAL told Thai website Sanook that Ekapol's condition had deteriorated more than any of the players by the time the group was found. CNN published a similar report.
Ekapol also taught the kids meditation to help them remain calm and not dwell on their hunger. Ekapol grew up an orphan and lived in a temple in the nearby province of Lamphun for almost half his life, Khaosod reports.
The team's head coach, Naparat Guntawong said he would not have approved the cave hike, but that he was confident in Ekapol's ability to keep the boys safe.
"He loves the kids, has always taken care of them very well and is extremely close to the team," Naparat told the website Komchadluek.
Social media in Thailand is humming with opinions. One headline in the
summarized the conflicting view of the coach and his charges: "Lost boys: Heroes or zeroes?"
Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha asked the public to avoid a rush to judgment.
"It's an issue people are following closely every day, so there's already been a lot of drama about it," he told Thai media. "I have asked provincial offices to look into the best way of making sure they are okay psychologically. I'm not saying the 13 people are heroes."
Prayut said the emphasis should be on a safe rescue, and a future where all can "serve as good members of society."
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