THAM LUANG CAVE RES­CUE: A PROUD MO­MENT FOR DIVERS

Scuba Diver Australasia + Ocean Planet - - Contents - By UW360

On June 23, 2018, a group of young boys and their foot­ball coach went miss­ing in the flooded Tham Luang Nang Non cave in the Thai province of Chi­ang Rai. Seven­teen days later, the boys were freed thanks to the im­mense ef­fort of ex­pert cave divers and many oth­ers around the world

Ar­guably, divers have never been at the fore­front of a res­cue mis­sion of this mag­ni­tude be­fore. This op­er­a­tion had a global au­di­ence gripped in sus­pense as in­ter­na­tional and Thai Navy Seal divers per­formed a search-and-res­cue mis­sion for the 12 miss­ing boys and their foot­ball coach. With all 13 in­di­vid­u­als safely evac­u­ated from the cave, the hugely suc­cess­ful res­cue mis­sion has brought great at­ten­tion to the div­ing in­dus­try – cave div­ing in par­tic­u­lar.

The cri­sis saw divers from all over ral­ly­ing to­gether to of­fer their ex­per­tise. In par­tic­u­lar, Ben Rey­menants, owner and founder of Blue La­bel Div­ing, was one of the first divers to be called onto the scene. Ben re­calls, A friend and tech­ni­cal div­ing col­league of mine asked if I would like to go over and as­sist, as the Thai Navy Seals needed the sup­port and ex­per­tise on cave div­ing. When I saw the con­di­tions on the first day, I had very lit­tle hope. Es­pe­cially since there was no guar­an­tee the boys were still alive. This cave is never dived as it is too dan­ger­ous, but since the Navy Seals went in the next day, I de­cided to go with them to do some dam­age con­trol.

“What fol­lowed next was a se­ries of hor­rific dives. On one oc­ca­sion, I was out alone in zero vis­i­bil­ity and got stuck in an out­flow­ing re­stric­tion. Thank­fully, I man­aged to pull my­self out. I nearly gave up un­til sud­denly, the rain stopped, and vis­i­bil­ity cleared from one inch to one me­tre and the flow be­came man­age­able.”

The mis­sion started with the te­dious and dan­ger­ous process of brav­ing the muddy, strong cur­rents to find the boys. An ex­plo­ration could last for hours, with heavy gear such as ropes and tanks be­ing hauled along by the res­cue divers. The aim was to lay lines that would lead to the boys.

“Now, the dif­fi­culty was find­ing the T-junc­tion, a nar­row area with a very sharp turn,” Ben ex­plains. “I was 2.5 kilo­me­tres into the cave and found my­self be­ing sucked into a tiny hole, sur­rounded by mud. I couldn’t move nor could I see any­thing. My buddy, Maksym, had to pull me out, inch by inch, by my feet for 50 me­tres till we were back at the main junc­tion. I then dropped down, and re­alised that there was clear wa­ter com­ing from un­der­neath a ledge – that’s how we found the T-junc­tion that led to the room where the boys were. Emo­tions were like a roller­coaster to say the least.”

Nine days into the res­cue, on the morn­ing of the day the boys and their coach were found, Den­mark-born Ivan Karadzic, a tech­ni­cal div­ing in­struc­tor-trainer and co-owner of Koh Tao Divers, ar­rived to of­fer his sup­port, along with a group of about 14 other divers from around Thai­land.

“The team I was part of was tasked to find a good place in­side the cave to make pit stops,” says Ivan. “The dis­tance in and out of the cave is too far for divers to carry enough gas, so for divers who need to go all the way into the cave, they have to change their tanks. Ev­ery day, we brought in many, many tanks and placed them roughly half­way in­side the cave so the divers go­ing all the way in would have enough gas to breathe.”

“IT WAS AL­MOST MIRAC­U­LOUS”

The ex­trac­tion plan that en­sued was a com­pi­la­tion of ex­pert opin­ion and sug­ges­tions from ev­ery­one in­volved in the op­er­a­tion. Hun­dreds of dif­fer­ent backup mis­sions and plans were made for all sorts of fore­see­able emer­gen­cies that might oc­cur.

Ivan, who was present on the first day of ex­trac­tion, re­marks, “The plan it­self was in­cred­i­bly de­tailed, and ev­ery­body knew their ex­act role. Dur­ing the res­cue, there were 24 divers, and we all had dif­fer­ent, very spe­cialised jobs. Ev­ery­thing was like a per­fectly-tuned clock­work. I think I speak for the en­tire team when I say that we were very sur­prised at how few mis­takes were made, and how ef­fec­tively the plan was ex­e­cuted; it was al­most mirac­u­lous.”

Sin­ga­porean Dou­glas Yeo, dive in­struc­tor with Scuba Schools In­ter­na­tional (SSI) and Course Di­rec­tor at Div­ing In­struc­tor World As­so­ci­a­tion (DIWA), ar­rived on the last day of the ex­trac­tion to of­fer help in the fi­nal stages of the op­er­a­tion. He re­calls, When I ar­rived, there were still five more boys left to be rescued, and the rain was pour­ing down. There were 30 of us in cham­ber two, with the ma­jor­ity be­ing for­mer Navy Seal divers, a cou­ple of for­eign divers, and a doc­tor who was sta­tioned to in­spect the boys as they passed through.

“I re­mem­ber one of the boys, an 11-year-old, who was just brought into cham­ber two. He was half awake, with his eyes open. I could tell he wanted to say some­thing, but due to the se­da­tion and harsh con­di­tions, he was vis­i­bly weak and tired. We locked eyes, and in that mo­ment I could sense the over­whelm­ing ap­pre­ci­a­tion he had. That was an emo­tional mo­ment for me; I couldn’t help but imag­ine that be­ing my son.”

One of the dan­gers of this mis­sion was the pos­si­bil­ity of the boys go­ing into panic. Panic in­side a cave leads to one re­sult only: fa­tal­ity. In no way could we take the risk of the boys go­ing into panic, which was ex­tremely likely con­sid­er­ing that they have no for­mal train­ing and the con­di­tions we were div­ing in were ab­so­lutely ter­ri­ble. Un­der the rec­om­men­da­tion of Dr Richard Har­ris, the boys were given anti-anx­i­ety med­i­ca­tion, as it was the only way to safely ex­tract them

Ivan Karadzic, res­cue diver

TOP LEFT Ben en­ter­ing sump one of Tham Luang caveTOP RIGHT Ben and Maksym Pole­jaka pre­par­ing to en­ter Tham Luang past sump three for a six-hour push. Eight hours later the boys were found

Cross-sec­tion of the cave taken from 1986 sur­vey. Source: French Fed­er­a­tion of Speloel­ogy, Ra­jabht Ma­hasaeakham Univer­sity, BBC, Dig­i­ta­lay

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