Thailand’s mission impossible: rescue highlights life, hope, selflessness
SOMETIMES there is a story about the incredible resilience and generosity of the human spirit that inspires and makes us believe in the goodness that still exists among us.
For all the horrors of civil wars, death and destruction that at times seem to be like a human race to the bottom, a story suddenly emerges about life, hope and selflessness.
This week there was just such an awe-inspiring story that came from deep within a mountain in northern Thailand, from the depths of a cave complex that has long been the source of spiritual legends.
The story which transfixed the world took place just an hour north of Thailand’s cultural capital, Chiang Mai, made famous for its handpainted umbrellas and lantern festival.
I never had the chance to explore the mysterious cave complexes that have bewitched generations of Thais, but I did witness the endless “spirit houses” that litter the country roads surrounding Chiang Mai. Not understanding what a spirit house was, I was quickly informed that the structures which look like an array of colourful birdhouses on stilts at the side of the roads were inhabited by spirits, and the houses should in no way be interfered with.
If spirit houses are cloaked in mystery, the outlying cave complexes harbour a netherworld of superstition. Sacred caves in Thailand have long been known as places of both mystical power and danger. The Tham Luang cave complex, where 12 young boys and their soccer coach almost lost their lives over the past fortnight, is one such cave.
It all started ever so innocently when Ekkapol Ake Chantawong – known as Coach Ake – the Buddhist monk-turned-soccer coach, had taken his young soccer team between the ages of 11 and 16 into the cave complex to explore, leaving their bicycles at the cave entrance.
After some time and much to their horror, the water levels in the cave started to rise and they found themselves trapped deep along the 3.2km cave path.
With the water rising and blocking their escape, the boys became trapped on a small rock shelf deep inside the cave’s vast network of tunnels.
It is hard to imagine being caught on a rock shelf in the cold dampness in total darkness – which blocked out all sense of time or reality. The minutes turned into hours, and hours turned into days. The seemingly hopeless situation went on for nine agonising days, without the boys having any information about whether the authorities were aware of their location, or whether a search was even under way.
The oldest boy had turned 17 the day they entered the cave, and it was the packed birthday snacks that ended up saving their lives, along with the dripping water from the cave walls. Coach Ake had refused to eat so as to leave any nourishment for his team, and had taught them meditation to get them through the traumatising ordeal. Ake wanted to minimise the oxygen they were using as levels had dipped to 15% in the corner in which they were huddled.
In a remarkable show of resilience, the boys had proactively used rocks to dig 5m deeper into the cave to create a tunnel where they could keep warm. It was nine solitary days before rescuers were able to locate them, and it became a race against time to pump millions of gallons of water from the cave.
If the boys were to avoid being left in their predicament for months until the end of the monsoon season, there was no other alternative but to learn to dive using scuba masks and oxygen tanks. Once they mastered that, they had to learn to traverse narrow and jagged tunnels. One passage was too narrow to even wear oxygen tanks on their backs and they were forced to push the oxygen tanks ahead of them along the narrow waterway.
Three daring rescue operations took place since Sunday, with four boys being extracted on Sunday, four on Monday and five on Tuesday night. By the time the last boys were rescued, they had been trapped for 17 days.
What is interesting is that this ordeal captured the world’s headlines for days on end, while over the same period,
330 000 desperate Syrians were displaced from Southern Syria through bombing. Hundreds of thousands have been trapped at the closed borders with Jordan and Israel.
They are languishing in the desert without drinkable water or shelter, and many are dying from dehydration and exposure to the elements.
The ordeal of the trapped Syrian refugees has been no less traumatising than being trapped in a dark cave. Are we so desensitised to the Syrian catastrophe that our attention gravitates far more easily to a dramatic cave rescue?
Over 1000 people were involved in the cave rescue with teams from China, Myanmar, Laos, Australia, the US and Britain. Unfortunately the trapped Syrians hardly made the news, and no rescue efforts have been launched to save them. Hypocrisy aside, at least we could write about an inspiring human story in Thailand with a happy ending.
Syria will be the subject for Sunday’s Global Spotlight.
TEAM EFFORT: A picture from a video released via the Thai Navy SEAL Facebook Page on Wednesday shows rescuers evacuating a boy from the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Thailand.