How I came to be known as the 'Mr. Pineapple' while reporting on the Thai cave rescue

PHOTO: ABC News Foreign Correspondent James Longman speaks exclusively with the Thai soccer team and their assistant coach after their cave rescue in a segment that aired Aug. 22, 2018.
PlayPannawat Muangmoon/ABC via Getty Images
WATCH How an ABC News reporter became Thailand's 'Mr. Pineapple'

Mr. Pineapple. That’s what they call me in Thailand. Sometimes Pineapple Prince, and on one occasion I was even elevated to Pineapple King.

When I got back to London from each journey, reporting on various stages of the “Wild Boars” soccer team story, friends would ask, ‘What’s all this about pineapples?’ pointing to my social media and all the pictures, mentions, cartoons and emojis of pineapples that became a feature of my accounts.

Well, it all started on the day the rescue began. As the first U.S. news team on the ground, and some of the first international journalists to arrive, our team had already picked up quite a following in Thailand.

PHOTO: Rescue teams walk inside cave complex where 12 boys and their soccer coach went missing, in Mae Sai, Chiang Rai province, in northern Thailand, July 2, 2018. Tham Luang Rescue Operation Center via AP
Rescue teams walk inside cave complex where 12 boys and their soccer coach went missing, in Mae Sai, Chiang Rai province, in northern Thailand, July 2, 2018.

Outside the cave, I really enjoyed documenting life in the volunteer camp for the first two weeks. It was alive with color — the warm smiles of locals, the delicious food, the hot scented face towels, the espresso machine in the middle of the jungle (lifesaver!).

I’d share photos and videos on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter of anything and everything to give people a sense of the wonderful atmosphere, which we were lucky enough to experience first-hand. Thai people welcomed this, and were watching ABC News coverage – I noticed our work being translated and shared widely online, and we were soon being asked for interviews with national news outlets.

PHOTO: ABC News Foreign Correspondent James Longman speaks exclusively with the Thai soccer team and their assistant coach after their cave rescue in a segment that aired Aug. 22, 2018.
Pannawat Muangmoon/ABC via Getty Images
ABC News Foreign Correspondent James Longman speaks exclusively with the Thai soccer team and their assistant coach after their cave rescue in a segment that aired Aug. 22, 2018.

All this meant that a lot of Thai people would know who we were before the rescue even began. On the day that it did, the press was cleared out of the cave area and told to set up elsewhere. As we jogged down the muddy track, out into the fields nearby, I scanned the area for a good spot from which to broadcast, and there it was: the pineapple grove. It sat at the junction where all the vehicles going to and from the cave passed, so I climbed through the undergrowth with our cameraman Hugo, and we set up our position.

Most of the other international news networks followed, and by the end of the day, it was a pineapple mountain of cameras, producers, microphones and satellites. Hugo took a photo of me with a pineapple, which someone used to draw a cartoon meme, and then things really went wild.

From that moment, I would be stopped to take photos just about everywhere I went. On planes, I could tell that the cabin crew wanted photos, too, but they would only pluck up the courage by the end of the flight. After 15 hours on a plane, you do not look your best!

Someone sent me a pineapple shirt via the post to our hotel. And while passing through Bangkok’s airport on one trip, the Thai Air staff greeted me with a pineapple cake. Pineapples are used in Thai cooking quite a lot, but I have a feeling that it was being crowbarred into recipes for my benefit — such as when I was offered pineapple coffee, which, to be fair, was delicious.

Such was the level of interest that when I went back a third time to interview the boys, there was concern that our secret exclusive would get out if people knew I was back in Thailand. Our producer Kaitlyn had to issue a social media ban for this reason, and she also ordered me to hide in my hotel room.

I remember laughing after one staff member came up to me and said, “We are not supposed to say anything, but we know who you are, Mr. Pineapple!” Then they ran off down the corridor giggling.

PHOTO: Rescue workers take out machines after 12 soccer players and their coach were rescued in Tham Luang cave complex in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 10, 2018. Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters
Rescue workers take out machines after 12 soccer players and their coach were rescued in Tham Luang cave complex in the northern province of Chiang Rai, Thailand, July 10, 2018.

Reporting on this story has been one of the great honors of my life — not least because of the generosity of the Thai people, who made our jobs so much easier. Being called Mr. Pineapple may be slightly strange, but it’s a happy reminder of the time I spent in an extraordinary country.