The in­cred­i­ble true story of how an en­tire soc­cer team sur­vived 18 days trapped in a Thai cave.

SSIX DAYS AF­TER the mir­a­cle, when the boys were co­cooned in a ster­ile hospi­tal and the divers had flown home and al­most all of the jour­nal­ists had dis­persed, peo­ple came to the cave again. There were vil­lagers from the flat­lands be­neath the Doi Nang Non, the moun­tains that rise be­tween Thai­land and Myan­mar, and there were vol­un­teers, hun­dreds of them in their le­mon-yel­low shirts and sky-blue caps, who had been there for most of the 18 days the mir­a­cle had re­quired. There were monks, too, at a makeshift dais on the foot­path to the cave, and there were dig­ni­taries – lo­cal au­thor­i­ties, the fam­i­lies of the boys who’d been blessed by the mir­a­cle – in rows of chairs un­der a long tent. The peo­ple, many of them, brought of­fer­ings. Below the mouth of the cave and in front of the big sign that an­nounces the place as Tham LuangKhun Nam Nang Non For­est Park, in a clear­ing cut into the dirt at the side of the road, they planted small white pen­nants and sticks of in­cense and can­dles the colour of gold­en­rod. On a ta­ble near the monks, they left fish and fruit and the sev­ered heads of pigs. These were gifts to the spirit of the cave. For al­most three weeks, Tham Luang had held within her a dozen young soc­cer play­ers and their coach, who were trapped by flood­ing rains with­out food or wa­ter or any pos­si­ble way to re­move them­selves. For most of that time, it also was as­sumed, if rarely spo­ken aloud, that some of those boys – per­haps all of those boys – could die. The mir­a­cle was that they did not. And so the peo­ple came early in the morn­ing, trudg­ing up the park road from the po­lice check­point, and they con­tin­ued com­ing un­til the af­ter­noon, and they stayed un­til night­fall. The dig­ni­taries sat silently in their chairs, and the monks chanted, mono­tone and rhyth­mic, and the vol­un­teers filled in the empty ar­eas where the jour­nal­ists and the food stalls and the elec­tri­cal feeds had been days be­fore, all of them fac­ing the monks on the dais. They stood for hours, only oc­ca­sion­ally kneel­ing, as if a field of enor­mous yel­low flow­ers with pale blue cen­tres had risen from the mud and the gravel, all of them to­gether in the green of the for­est and the steamy heat of July, un­der a sky heavy with clouds but leak­ing only a light and misty rain. They were mak­ing merit and thank­ing the spirit of the cave for the mir­a­cle she had al­lowed and aton­ing for the indig­ni­ties in­flicted upon her – the miles of hose and ca­ble run along the lime­stone, the end­less boot prints in the mud, the lights and the noise and the chaos – in cre­at­ing that mir­a­cle. The boys and their coach had been deep in­side the cave, beyond kilo­me­tres of cham­bers and sumps and boul­der chokes. It is not un­think­able (though it is hor­ri­fy­ing to dwell upon the thought) that they would not have been found un­til Novem­ber, af­ter the mon­soons had passed and the wa­ter had re­ceded and all of them were dead. Even af­ter they were found, res­cu­ing them was by no means cer­tain. To ex­tract ex­hausted and weak­ened boys through a black labyrinth of mud and swirling wa­ter was tech­ni­cally dar­ing, phys­i­cally im­prob­a­ble, and lo­gis­ti­cally over­whelm­ing. Yet dozens of peo­ple with spe­cialised, al­most es­o­teric skills trav­elled from around the world to do so, to try to save 13 strangers of no par­tic­u­lar im­port other than be­ing fel­low hu­mans. Those dozens were sup­ported by many hun­dreds more, the vol­un­teers in yel­low and blue, the colours of the King and Queen Mother, who cooked and cleaned and kept or­der; and by holy men who chanted and med­i­tated and com­muned with the spirit of the cave. And mil­lions upon mil­lions watched, fed live up­dates by many hun­dreds of jour­nal­ists staked out at the foot of the Doi Nang Non. Un­til fi­nally, 18 days af­ter go­ing in, they were out, all of them, 12 boys and one coach. The res­cuers suc­ceeded, or the cave re­lented, or maybe both hap­pened at once. No one can say for cer­tain, and per­haps it doesn’t mat­ter: it was a mir­a­cle ei­ther way. Six days later, af­ter most of the for­eign­ers had gone home and the garbage was be­ing hauled away and the tents were be­ing bro­ken down, it was pos­si­ble to imag­ine this place re­turn­ing to what it al­ways had been, a quiet clear­ing next to a quiet cave. But it still quiv­ered with a sense

of the ex­tra­or­di­nary, and so it was proper to make merit in such a place.

THE TEAM WAS known as the Moo Pa, a name that trans­lates lit­er­ally as ‘For­est Pigs’ but also, more rea­son­ably, as ‘Wild Boars’, and they prac­tised on a rough field across the road from a lit­tle church and a small sun­dries shop. There were at least 13 play­ers at prac­tice that night, the youngest 11 years old, the old­est nearly 17, one turn­ing 16 that very day, which was Satur­day, June 23. Prac­tice was run by their as­sis­tant coach, Ekapol Chan­tha­wong. Coach Ek is an or­phan who trained to be a Bud­dhist monk and even then, as a grown man of 25, lived as a care­taker of sorts at Wat Phra That Doi Wao, a tem­ple at the top of a steep moun­tain that, if you tot­tered over the side of the road, would dump you into Myan­mar. The sum­mer sky was still thick with golden light when prac­tice ended. It was early and the boys had a lit­tle time be­fore they had to be home. Twelve of them and Coach Ek de­cided to ride their bi­cy­cles to Tham Luang. Though some of the boys, maybe most of them, knew their par­ents might not ap­prove, this was not a reck­less ad­ven­ture. The cave was nei­ther far nor iso­lated – com­ing south from the scrappy bor­der town of Mae Sai, you turn right just be­fore the Toy­ota deal­er­ship and fol­low the road through a corn­field and a grove of fruit trees – and part of it had been prop­erly tamed for tourists. It is, in fact, an of­fi­cial state park that in­cludes sev­eral other caves worn into the Doi Nang Non. There is a siz­able park­ing lot 100m past the en­trance and proper toi­lets and a ranger sta­tion from which park per­son­nel, dur­ing the dry sea­son, give tours of the first kilo­me­tre or so of the cave. On the foot­path from the park­ing lot, as a mat­ter of cul­tural habit, there is a shrine to Jao Mae Nang Non, the spirit of the cave. She is rep­re­sented by what ap­pears to be a re­cy­cled man­nequin in a pink dress, but in the tra­di­tional lore, she was the princess of an an­cient king­dom who fell in love with a stable boy. Like most an­cient sto­ries of roy­alty and com­mon­ers, this one ended badly: her father’s soldiers killed the stable boy, and, in her grief, the princess stabbed her­self to death in the cave. The stream that runs through the cave is be­lieved to be her blood, and the moun­tain is said to have taken her shape; the full name of the place, by one trans­la­tion, is ‘cave of the lady who lies wait­ing,’ and the moun­tain, from the right per­spec­tive, does in­deed re­sem­ble a woman in re­pose. It is a ma­jes­tic cav­ern, at least at the open­ing, a high and wide pocket eroded through the lime­stone. There is a well­worn path from the mouth, poured with ce­ment in parts, and beyond that, Tham Luang nar­rows be­fore open­ing again into a series of cham­bers. Even two kilo­me­tres in, when the cave con­stricts to a mud-floored pas­sage, it’s still wide enough and high enough for a grown man to com­fort­ably walk. The Wild Boars had no dif­fi­culty get­ting fairly far in, crawl­ing through a cou­ple of choke points to the open spa­ces. And they ex­pected no dif­fi­culty get­ting back out. The heavy mon­soon rains weren’t ex­pected for an­other week, and the year be­fore, the cave


hadn’t be­gun to flood un­til the mid­dle of July. The team brought no food or se­ri­ous spelunk­ing gear be­cause they were there on a lark, a brief field trip. They planned to stay for per­haps an hour, then re­treat, and pedal home to their par­ents. But, as it can do in north­ern Thai­land in the mid­dle of sum­mer, it started to rain. The Wild Boars wouldn’t have known that at first, with a thou­sand or so me­tres of rock above them and their be­ing more than a mile from the open for­est. But wa­ter fell on the moun­tains and gath­ered into streams that dis­ap­peared into sinks, rush­ing down through the lime­stone into the voids below. The wa­ter rose sud­denly and quickly, a great vol­ume forced into a tight course. A low area be­hind the boys and their coach flooded, filled a nar­row spot in the tun­nel the same way wa­ter set­tles in the trap of a sink. Coach Ek tried to swim out, to see if there was a rea­son­able chance for the boys to fol­low, but was forced to turn back. More wa­ter came, and the Wild Boars re­treated farther, scram­bling up – the in­te­rior of the cave is not level, but rather rises and falls as it bur­rows into the moun­tain – to a cham­ber with a sandy patch called Pat­taya Beach, then down again and up again, even­tu­ally reach­ing an even higher spot beyond. They set­tled on a mud slope above muddy wa­ter. And then they waited, first for min­utes. The wa­ter did not re­cede. And so they waited for hours, be­cause there was noth­ing else to do.

BOYS DIDN’T COME HOME, and par­ents be­gan to worry. They made phone calls and sent text mes­sages – to the head coach, to other par­ents – un­til, ac­cord­ing to the The Wash­ing­ton Post, the coach reached one boy who didn’t go to Tham Luang af­ter prac­tice. The coach went to the cave and par­ents went to the cave, and they found bi­cy­cles at the mouth and im­pass­able wa­ter in­side. The Wild Boars ob­vi­ously were trapped in the cave, but no one knew where ex­actly or, more to the point, how to get them out. But then the first lit­tle mir­a­cle tran­spired, which could prob­a­bly be dis­missed as co­in­ci­dence if it weren’t for ev­ery­thing else that hap­pened. An hour south, near the city of Chi­ang Rai, lived a man who knew the in­nards of Tham Luang bet­ter than any­one else on the planet. His name is Ver­non Unsworth, a 63-year-old Bri­tish hob­by­ist who’d learned to spelunk long ago in the York­shire dales and who now lives part of the year in Thai­land. That cave, he would later tell re­porters, had been “my sec­ond home” for more than half a decade: he had gone farther and deeper than any­one be­fore him and had taken ex­ten­sive mea­sure­ments and notes; his ex­plo­rations, in fact, are the ba­sis for some of the sec­tion on Tham Luang in The Caves of Thai­land, Vol. 2, a book by Martin El­lis pub­lished the pre­vi­ous year. As it hap­pened, Unsworth had his gear ready to ex­plore the cave the very next day, June 24, just to have a look around and check the wa­ter lev­els. One of the lo­cal au­thor­i­ties who knew Unsworth’s work called him, and Unsworth hus­tled up to the cave in the mid­dle of the night. Be­cause of his ex­per­tise, he un­der­stood two things im­me­di­ately, both of crit­i­cal im­por­tance. The first was where to look for the Wild Boars, a cru­cial de­ci­sion con­sid­er­ing that the cave is enor­mous and time was pre­cious. About two kilo­me­tres from the mouth of Tham Luang, there is a junc­tion. To the right is a “pas­sage [that] soon be­comes a crawl, which is flat out in places and of­ten re­mains flooded in the dry sea­son,” ac­cord­ing to El­lis’s book. In­stinct and ne­ces­sity, then, would have sent the Boars left, to­ward Pat­taya Beach. The sec­ond im­por­tant thing Unsworth un­der­stood was that divers would be re­quired, and that or­di­nary divers weren’t suf­fi­ciently skilled. (Even Thai SEALS couldn’t get far at first.) Cave div­ing – swim­ming through tight tun­nels full of sharp rocks and strong currents in near to­tal dark­ness – is ex­traor­di­nar­ily spe­cialised and wildly dan­ger­ous, so much so that it isn’t even in­cluded in most naval dive train­ing; the risk sim­ply isn’t worth the ben­e­fit. But Unsworth, be­ing a spe­lunker him­self, knew of divers who were qual­i­fied, and he gave the au­thor­i­ties three names: Rick Stan­ton, John Volan­then, and Robert Harper, all of whom work with the vol­un­teer Bri­tish Cave Res­cue Coun­cil. Unsworth told the Thais to con­tact the three through the Bri­tish em­bassy. They were at the cave by 7:30pm on Wed­nes­day.

THE RAIN MOSTLY held off on Sun­day, but then fell hard on Mon­day and Tues­day, too – wa­ter pour­ing from the sky and into the streams and down through the sinks. Deep in Tham Luang, the Moo Pa had no food, and the wa­ter below them was muddy, undrinkable, so Coach Ek pointed to the sta­lac­tites grow­ing from the ceil­ing, rel­a­tively pure wa­ter drip­ping off them. And the boys de­cided to dig, us­ing rocks to scrape at the walls. It was fu­tile to think they could tun­nel their way out, but even in fu­til­ity there could be hope.

More im­por­tant than the pres­ence of hope, though, was the ab­sence of panic, and the con­ser­va­tion of en­ergy. Coach Ek had been a prac­tis­ing monk for 10 years, dur­ing which, like most monks, he’d learned how to med­i­tate. There is a dif­fer­ence, of course, be­tween de­vout and ded­i­cated re­li­gious me­di­a­tion and staving off ter­ror in the damp dark of a cave, but the idea is the same. Coach Ek taught the boys to breathe slowly and pur­pose­fully, to clear their minds, to re­move them­selves men­tally and emo­tion­ally from a muddy slope. Done prop­erly – and the boys would later say their coach was an ex­cel­lent teacher – the heart rate slows and me­tab­o­lism down­shifts and panic quells. That prob­a­bly was more ef­fec­tive than dig­ging. Out­side it was still rain­ing, great tor­rents at times, a slow driz­zle at oth­ers, and al­ways a threat of more, even when the clouds broke over the Doi Nang Non. But res­cuers and vol­un­teers con­tin­ued to ar­rive, hun­dreds of them – Thai mil­i­tary and civil au­thor­i­ties, Amer­i­cans and Aus­tralians, ex­pat divers from the re­sort is­lands in the south – and they knew they had to get at least some of the wa­ter out of the cave. Far above, streams were di­verted to slow the flood go­ing in, and mas­sive pumps sucked out mil­lions of liters, steered a del­uge into rice pad­dies bril­liant green with ma­tur­ing plants. “It was like two cups pour­ing into one,” said Set­thavut Panyakham, the head of the vil­lage of Ban Nong O. The rice farm­ers there knew the flood was com­ing, knew it would drown their crop, knew they couldn’t re­plant un­til next year. But they did not protest; of 19 farm­ers, only four even asked for the com­pen­sa­tion that the gov­ern­ment of­fered. “It’s about giv­ing,” Panyakham said. Mak­ing merit, he says, is also about not ask­ing for money for do­ing the right thing. In­stead of fret­ting about their de­stroyed liveli­hoods, the vil­lagers in Ban Nong O brought food to the cave and washed clothes for the res­cuers and di­rected traf­fic to keep all the vol­un­teers and more than a thou­sand jour­nal­ists from trip­ping over each other and grid­lock­ing the roads. He beamed when he said this. “The peo­ple,” he said, “were able to show their spirit.”

DIVERS BE­GAN MAK­ING for­ays into the cave, fight­ing hard currents, lay­ing ropes to mark the way. They all turned left at the junc­tion, as Unsworth had sug­gested, mov­ing deeper into the cave with each ex­pe­di­tion. On July 2, the ninth full day of the op­er­a­tion, Stan­ton and Volan­then made it all the way to Pat­taya Beach, the sandy rise more than two kilo­me­tres in. They sur­faced. No Wild Boars. They still had some rope left to lay, so they con­tin­ued on, through a sump – a low spot that fills with wa­ter – that re­quired them to swim through a nar­row tun­nel be­neath low-hang­ing rock be­fore they sur­faced again. They sniffed.


THIS PAGE A re­lay of Thai soldiers at the mouth of the cave dur­ing the res­cue at­tempt. Soldiers, medics and civil­ians from the Doi Nang Non were on hand while the boys were trapped in the cave.

CLOCK­WISE FROM TOP School chil­dren from In­dia pray for the safe re­turn of the Wild Boars; a mud map of the cave pro­vided by one of the Thai Navy Seals; vol­un­teers from around the world join forces to help the res­cue at­tempt.

FROM TOP Thai ser­vice per­son­nel be­gin the ner­vous de­scent into the cave; some of the boys re­cover af­ter a tor­tur­ous 18 days trapped in the cave.

THIS PAGE Hero Dr Richard ‘Harry’ Har­ris in a press con­fer­ence; the 12 mem­bers of the Wild Boars and their coach hold up a photo of the Navy SEAL who trag­i­cally lost his life lay­ing oxy­gen tanks for the boys along the exit route.

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