‘Two and a half days of mercy’

Irish Examiner - - News - Joyce Fe­gan

Two Irish jour­nal­ists re­veal what it was like to cover the Thai­land cave rescue op­er­a­tion from right out­side the Tham Luang com­plex.

John Irvine had a front row seat to one of the “great es­capes of all time” as all 12 boys and their coach were res­cued from the cave in Thai­land.

Belfast-born John is an award-win­ning for­eign cor­re­spon­dent for ITN and spent nine days re­port­ing from out­side the cave in Thai­land, ac­com­pa­nied by Dublin-born cam­era­man Sean Swan.

“Peo­ple are happy, tired, re­lieved — it’s one of the great es­capes of all time,” John told the Irish Ex­am­iner from Thai­land.

“Ev­ery day there was a new layer of com­plex­ity. Ev­ery day there was a new prob­lem. The Thai peo­ple pulled out all the stops — man­power took on Mother Na­ture.”

He ex­plained how the lo­cal peo­ple teamed up with the mil­i­tary to carry off the rescue mis­sion.

“They put in a pump­ing sys­tem to pump out mil­lions of gal­lons of water ev­ery day,” said John. “They then cut clear­ings on the moun- tain side to pre­vent streams and put in pip­ing and the water was pumped down the moun­tain side. The mil­i­tary did it with the help of lo­cals. They didn’t want the water go­ing down into pot holes.”

John ar­rived in Thai­land on Tues­day of last week and ad­mit­ted that the prospect of get­ting the boys to safety did not seem pos­si­ble.

“Ini­tially there was a se­ri­ous propo­si­tion to leave the boys down there un­til the rainy sea­son ended, which is four months away, and to lower them down food and water,” he said.

“Last Fri­day they re­alised the air pocket they were in was run­ning out of oxy­gen and the car­bon monox­ide was get­ting high. It looked very bad.

“The boys were de­hy­drated and hun­gry and pos­si­bly had dysen­tery from drink­ing muddy water for a week. It [the rescue] didn’t look fea­si­ble. They also didn’t know if the air pocket had flooded.”

Us­ing the quote that re­ver­ber­ated around the world, John ex­plained how the head of the Thai mil­i­tary prayed to the rain gods for a break so that the cave sys­tem did not fill up with water.

“The army com­man­der prayed to the god of rain for three days of mercy and he got two and a half days of mercy,” said John. “So they pushed the ‘go’ but­ton for the rescue mis­sion.”

While John and Sean had been close to the en­trance of the cave, they were pushed back about “600 yards” when the rescue mis­sion be­gan last Sun­day.

“On Sun­day, drain­ing ef­forts seemed to re­ally take off,” said John. “Last Sun­day was Thai­land’s long­est day. Four were res­cued on Sun­day, four on Mon­day, and five on Tues­day.

“Am­bu­lances be­came our guid­ing light, be­cause when an am­bu­lance ap­peared with its siren you knew it was to rescue one of them. When we heard the first siren there was a real sense of ‘God, this is pos­si­ble, if they can get two out they can get four out’.”

Ear­lier this week, photos emerged of the boys sit­ting in hos­pi­tal.

“They went to great lengths to shield them,” said John. “We re­ported on them as num­bers. No­body’s got to see the boys as they were quar­an­tined. You can pick up ill­nesses from bat and bird fae­ces and fungi in the cave sys­tem.”

For John, the stand-out mo­ment of the rescue mis­sion was the “roll of sound” that emerged from the cave as each of the boys were res­cued.

“There was a nice mo­ment at the end, as each of the boys made it from the air pocket to the rel­a­tive safety of cham­ber three, it was then about 1.5km to the open­ing of the cave,” said John.

“The boys were on stretch­ers and they were passed along a long line of peo­ple from the cham­ber to the cave open­ing. You could just hear all this cheer­ing and hol­ler­ing. It was like a trum­pet, a roll of sound, from the cham­ber to the exit. Each time they were passed along there would be cheer­ing like a Mex­i­can wave of sound.”

John, who has re­ported from Haiti, South Africa, and Jerusalem, said the en­tire mis­sion was a “fan­tas­tic case”.

“It was a fan­tas­tic case of qual­ity peo­ple will­ing to risk their lives for the lives of other qual­ity peo­ple,” he said. “The boys’ de­meanour was amaz­ing. They had been med­i­tat­ing with their coach, who was a for­mer Bud­dhist monk, and med­i­tat­ing is a cop­ing mech­a­nism. Any footage of the boys you see them as stoic, cheer­ful and po­lite. It was so im­pres­sive.”

While the gods granted the army com­man­der’s prayers for a break in the rain, they were not in par­tic­u­larly gen­er­ous mood, as John ex­plained.

“Three hours af­ter the rescue ended, the pump failed and the cave started fill­ing up with water,” he said.

■ John is still in Thai­land hop­ing to in­ter­view some of the divers in­volved in the rescue, as well as some of the boys or their coach.

Picture: AP

This un­dated from video re­leased via the Thai navy’s Face­book page on Wed­nes­day shows res­cuers car­ry­ing a boy out of the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Mae Sai, Chi­ang Rai prov­ince, north­ern Thai­land.

Res­cuers lock hands be­fore en­ter­ing Tham Luang Nang Non cave on an­other rescue mis­sion.

The boys were quar­an­tined af­ter their rescue, as bat and bird fae­ces and cave fingi can cause ill­nesses.

Video taken by Thai navy divers show mem­bers of the Wild Boars soc­cer team in­side the Tham Luang Nang Non cave.

Picture: Ye Aung Thu/AFP/Getty

Vol­un­teers cel­e­brate at a makeshift press cen­tre in Mae Sai district of Chi­ang Rai prov­ince.

Dubliner Sean Swan was act­ing as John’s cam­era­man.

John Irvine: ‘It’s one of the great es­capes of all time.’

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