‘Two and a half days of mercy’
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.
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.
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.’