MIRACLE AT THAM LUANG
THE STORY OF THE THAI CAVE RESCUE – IN WHICH A TEAM OF YOUNG SOCCER PLAYERS AND THEIR COACH SURVIVED FOR 18 DAYS BEFORE BEING EXTRACTED BY DIVERS – GOT EVEN MORE UNBELIEVABLE THE CLOSER WE LOOKED.
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
COACH EK TAUGHT THE BOYS TO BREATHE SLOWLY, TO CLEAR THEIR MINDS, TO REMOVE THEMSELVES MENTALLY AND EMOTIONALLY FROM A MUDDY SLOPE.
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.
THIRTEEN PEOPLE CONFINED IN A SMALL SPACE WITH LIMITED AIRFLOW WILL, AS A MATTER OF BIOLOGICAL CERTAINTY, CREATE A STINK.
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.