On trip No. 11, some­thing went dan­ger­ously wrong...

The Straits Times - - TOPOF THE NEWS -

MAE SAI (Thai­land) Im­prob­a­bly enough, most of the es­capes went flaw­lessly. But on trip No. 11 to save one of the last foot­ball team­mates stuck for 18 days deep in­side the cave, some­thing went dan­ger­ously wrong.

Res­cuers in­side the un­der­ground cham­ber felt a tug on the rope – the sign that one of the boys would soon emerge from the flooded tun­nels.

Fif­teen min­utes went by. Then 60. Then 90.

As the res­cuers waited anx­iously, a diver nav­i­gat­ing the 11th team­mate through the un­der­wa­ter maze lost hold of the guide rope. With vis­i­bil­ity near zero, he could not find the line again. Slowly, he back­tracked, go­ing deeper into the cave to find the rope, be­fore the res­cue could re­sume.

At last, the sur­vivor got through – safely.

It was a fright­en­ing mo­ment in what had been a sur­pris­ingly smooth res­cue of the soc­cer team, the Wild Boars, who had sur­vived the murky dark­ness of Thai­land’s Tham Luang cave, some­times by lick­ing wa­ter off the cold lime­stone walls.

In­ter­views with mil­i­tary per­son­nel and of­fi­cials de­tailed a res­cue as­sem­bled from an amal­gam of mus­cle and brain power from around the world: 10,000 peo­ple took part, in­clud­ing 2,000 sol­diers, 200 divers and rep­re­sen­ta­tives from 100 gov­ern­ment agen­cies.

It took plas­tic co­coons, float­ing stretch­ers and a rope line that hoisted the play­ers and coach over out­crop­pings.

The boys and their coach had en­tered the cave on June 23 and be­came stranded on a rocky perch af­ter heavy rain flooded parts of the cave com­plex. Ex­tract­ing them re­quired long stretches un­der­wa­ter, in bone-chill­ing tem­per­a­tures, and keep­ing t hem sub­merged for around 40 min­utes at a time.

“The most im­por­tant piece of the res­cue was good luck,” said Ma­jorGen­eral Cha­longchai Chaiyakham, deputy com­man­der of the Thai 3rd Army Re­gion, which helped the op­er­a­tion. “So many things could have gone wrong, but some­how we man­aged to get the boys out. I still can’t be­lieve it worked.”

The risks were un­der­scored on July 6 when re­tired navy Seal Sa­man Gu­nan died in an un­der­wa­ter pas­sage­way. Three Seal frog­men were hos­pi­talised af­ter their air tanks ran low. Swift cur­rents pushed divers off-track for hours at a time, some­times tear­ing off their face masks.

More than 150 Thai navy Seal mem­bers, out­fit­ted with im­pro­vised equip­ment some­times held to­gether with duct tape, helped cre­ate the es­cape route. A crew of for­eign and Thai cave divers courted death every time they ex­plored Tham Luang’s cramped cham­bers.

Over­seas mil­i­tary teams brought search-and-res­cue equip­ment. The Amer­i­cans pro­vided lo­gis­tics, while British divers nav­i­gated the most haz­ardous stretches.

The Seals and vol­un­teer divers painstak­ingly pen­e­trated the cave, se­cur­ing guide­lines needed to en­sure their safety. As mon­soon rain inun­dated the area, the por­ous lime­stone cave ab­sorbed wa­ter like a sponge. Once-ac­ces­si­ble cav­erns flooded en­tirely.

The wa­ter was so cold that the Thai divers’ teeth chat­tered while they rested dur­ing 12-hour shifts. Lack­ing proper hel­mets, the Seals taped a med­ley of flash­lights to their im­pro­vised head­gear.

“If you put your hand in front of you, it just dis­ap­peared,” said Kaew, a Thai navy Seal. “You couldn’t see any­thing.”

Mean­while, ef­forts to drain the cave, through pumps and a makeshift dam, be­gan pro­duc­ing re­sults. Crags and out­crop­pings emerged from the murk. The most wa­ter­logged pas­sage, which had taken five hours to nav­i­gate in the early go­ing, could now be tra­versed in two hours with the help of guide ropes.

By last week­end, the res­cuers were ea­ger to act. Rain was back in the fore­cast. The oxy­gen l evel where the boys were shel­ter­ing had dipped to 15 per cent. At 12 per cent, the air would grow deadly.

Mr Erik Brown, a 35-year-old Cana­dian who was one of 13 for­eign ex­pert divers in a core res­cue team of 18, said he was ter­ri­fied as he swam, crawled and waded through the labyrinthine cave. He re­called div­ing for per­haps half an hour in “zero vis­i­bil­ity”, with his hel­met bash­ing against rocks, and then a 10-minute walk in wa­ter up to his waist be­fore div­ing again.

Mr Brown was tasked dur­ing the Mon­i­tored at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals by doc­tors posted along the more than 4km-long es­cape route

Static line guides the divers in­side the cave

res­cue with chang­ing oxy­gen tanks and haul­ing the boys along be­tween dive spots.

Dur­ing the res­cue, the boys were fit­ted with 5mm-thick wet­suits and full-face scuba masks. They were told to re­main calm and mo­tion­less as two divers pre­pared to tug them through murky wa­ters and along guide ropes that had been put in place.

The 30-strong US team rec­om­mended that each child be con­fined in a flex­i­ble plas­tic co­coon, called a Sked, which is mar­keted as a res­cue stretcher and is a stan­dard part of the air force team’s gear.

British cave divers nav­i­gated the wrapped boys through the trick­i­est un­der­wa­ter pas­sages, while mon­i­tor­ing for air bub­bles that proved they were breath­ing.

Not one of the chil­dren was a strong swim­mer, let alone com­pe­tent diver. Some cre­vices were barely wide enough for a per­son, and the swirling cur­rents risked rip­ping off the boys’ oxy­gen masks.

“The main chal­lenge in the mis­sion is wa­ter, which keeps com­ing all the time. This makes the cur­rent in­side quite strong, and be­cause it is con­stantly flow­ing, the wa­ter is murky,” a Thai of­fi­cer in­volved in the mis­sion told Reuters.

About 40 per cent of the boys’ jour­ney through the wa­ter of at least three hours in­volved div­ing, and in other parts, wa­ter was up to the res­cuers’ chests, said Thai navy Seal com­man­der Rear-Ad­mi­ral Apakorn Yuukongkaew.

Once past this stretch, they reached Cham­ber Three. The div­ing was over by this point, but still the way ahead was hard.

The boys were put in green plas­tic to­bog­gans and car­ried through: At some points, there were steep slopes with cas­cad­ing wa­ter, and the res­cuers had to use a pul­ley sys­tem to winch them up. “We didn’t want the chil­dren to walk be­cause it is re­ally tir­ing from Cham­ber Three to the cave mouth,” RearAdm Apakorn said.

Wet and cold, some of the boys fell asleep as they were hauled along to the exit, but there were more than 100 peo­ple sta­tioned along this sec­tion, in­clud­ing nurses who checked their tem­per­a­ture, blood pres­sure, pulse and oxy­gen lev­els.

At one point, the plas­tic bun­dles con­tain­ing the boys were placed on the hoses for the wa­ter pumps, which acted as an i mpromptu slide. Rope lines hoisted the foot­ball team aloft so they could swing past par­tic­u­larly craggy parts of the cave. In one leg of the es­cape, the co­coons were placed on float­ing stretch­ers, and Thai frog­men pushed them along.

“We brought the chil­dren out like eggs pro­tected i n stone,” Rear-Adm Apakorn said, ref­er­enc­ing a Thai say­ing equiv­a­lent to “vel­vet glove”.

Over three gru­elling days, the boys and their coach emerged, one by one, from the cave safely.

Then, when it was seem­ingly all over, a drainage pump to min­imise flood­ing in the cave failed.

“The boys were safe, and my friends were safe,” said Kaew, the Thai navy Seal. “I thought, fi­nally, the mis­sion is a suc­cess.”

Kaew had wel­comed back the Seal team that stayed with the boys for eight days on the rock, mo­ments be­fore the pump failed. What had been waist-high wa­ter surged to chest level where Kaew was stand­ing, nearly a kilo­me­tre from the cave’s mouth. Kaew, who had no scuba gear with him, scram­bled to higher ground, barely es­cap­ing the fi­nal del­uge.

It was a chaotic fi­nale to the res­cue. Many of the divers and res­i­dents of the nearby north­ern town of Mae Sai saw the last flood as a sign that divine pro­tec­tion had ceased only af­ter all were safe.

For the en­tire mis­sion, Kaew had wrapped a Bud­dha amulet hang­ing on his neck with water­proof tape. “The cave is sa­cred,” he said. “It was pro­tected un­til the very end.”

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