‘Still can’t be­lieve it’: Cave rescue ex­pose

Navy Seal re­veals how one of 12 boys al­most didn’t make it, write Han­nah Beech, Richard C Pad­dock and Muk­tita Suhartono

Bangkok Post - - ROUNDUP -

Im­prob­a­bly enough, most of the es­capes went flaw­lessly. But on trip No.11, to save one of the last foot­ball team­mates stuck for up to 18 days deep in­side the cave, some­thing went dan­ger­ously wrong. Res­cuers in­side an un­der­ground cham­ber felt a tug on the rope — the sign that one of the 12 boys and their coach would soon emerge from the flooded tun­nels.

“Fish on,” the res­cuers sig­naled, re­called Maj Charles Hodges of the US Air Force, mis­sion com­man­der for the US team on site.

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 couldn’t 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 foot­ball 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.

“The whole world was watch­ing, so we had to suc­ceed,” said Kaew, a Thai Navy Seal who shook his head in amaze­ment at how ev­ery one of the res­cues worked. “I don’t think we had any other choice.”

In­ter­views with mil­i­tary per­son­nel and of­fi­cials de­tailed a rescue as­sem­bled from an amal­gam of mus­cle and brain­power from around the world: 10,000 peo­ple par­tic­i­pated, 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 had been stranded on a rocky perch more than 1 kilo­me­tre un­der­ground. Ex­tract­ing them re­quired long stretches un­der­wa­ter, in bone-chill­ing tem­per­a­tures, and keep­ing them sub­merged for around 40 min­utes at a time. The boys were even given anti-anxiety med­i­ca­tion to avert panic at­tacks.

“The most im­por­tant piece of the rescue was good luck,” said Maj Gen 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,” he said. The risks were un­der­scored on July 6 when Sa­man Gu­nan, a re­tired Navy Seal, 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.

Thai­land’s King do­nated sup­plies, and peo­ple across the na­tion vol­un­teered in any way they could, cook­ing meals for res­cuers, op­er­at­ing pumps to suck water out of the cave and hunt­ing for hid­den cracks in the lime­stone for­ma­tions through which the Wild Boars could per­haps be lifted to safety.

But, most of all, the op­er­a­tion to save the

team of 11- to 16-year old boys and their 25-year-old coach, said of­fi­cials and divers, took courage.

“I don’t know of any other rescue that put the res­cuer and the res­cuee in so much dan­ger over a pro­longed pe­riod of time, un­less it is some­thing along the lines of fire­fight­ers go­ing into the World Trade Cen­ter know­ing that the building is on fire and is go­ing to col­lapse,” Maj Hodges said.

Tham Luang cave is a rare place where a per­son can be­come com­pletely iso­lated. There is no GPS, no Wi-Fi, no cell­phone ser­vice. The last known sur­vey was con­ducted in the 1980s by a French cav­ing so­ci­ety, but many of its deep­est re­cesses re­main un­mapped. Spelunkers con­sider the cave one of the most chal­leng­ing in the world.

When the search be­gan, es­ti­mates of dis­tances be­tween key points were in­ac­cu­rate and the location of land­marks uncer­tain, cloud­ing even the most ba­sic as­sump­tions. Nev­er­the­less, lo­cal of­fi­cials knew enough

about Tham Luang’s dan­gers to place a warn­ing sign at the cave’s mouth against en­ter­ing dur­ing the rainy sea­son, when flash floods could in­un­date its cham­bers.


Rain was fore­cast for June 23, the day the Wild Boars made their ex­cur­sion to Tham Luang, but the boys had ven­tured into the cave be­fore. They left their bikes and foot­ball boots and set off with flash­lights, water and snacks bought to cel­e­brate one of the boy’s birthdays.

The last of the boys would not emerge un­til July 10 — more than two weeks later.

By the end of the first night, their par­ents were fran­tic. A con­tin­gent of Navy Seals be­gan push­ing their way into the flooded cave at 4am the next day.

But the Thai frog­men were ac­cus­tomed to trop­i­cal open water, not the murky cold cur­rents rac­ing through the cave. They lacked the equip­ment, much less the ex­per­tise needed for caves, where divers can­not just rise to the sur­face should some­thing go wrong.

On June 25, Ruengrit Changk­wanyuen, a Thai re­gional man­ager for Gen­eral Mo­tors, was among the first vol­un­teer cave divers to show up at the scene. Dozens would fol­low, from places in­clud­ing Fin­land, Bri­tain, China, Aus­tralia and the United States.

Even for some­one as ex­pe­ri­enced in cave div­ing as Mr Ruengrit, the force of the water in Tham Luang shocked him, tear­ing his mask off when he failed to po­si­tion him­self di­rectly fac­ing the cur­rent.

“It was like walk­ing into a strong wa­ter­fall and feel­ing the water rush­ing at you,” he said. “It was a hor­i­zon­tal climb against the water with ev­ery move.”

The Seals and vol­un­teer divers painstak­ingly pen­e­trated the cave, se­cur­ing guide­lines needed to en­sure their safety. They found foot­prints that hinted at the foot­ball team’s trail. But as mon­soon rains in­un­dated the area, the por­ous lime­stone cave ab­sorbed water like a sponge. Once-ac­ces­si­ble cav­erns flooded en­tirely.

“If you put your hand in front of you, it just dis­ap­peared,” said Kaew, the Seal who es­caped the final del­uge. “You couldn’t see any­thing.”


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

On the 10th day, July 2, with lit­tle hope of dis­cov­er­ing any­thing but bod­ies, a pair of Bri­tish divers work­ing to ex­tend a net­work of guide ropes popped up near a nar­row ledge.

Sud­denly, they saw 13 ema­ci­ated peo­ple perched in the dark. The Wild Boars had run out of food and light but had sur­vived by sip­ping con­den­sa­tion from the cave walls.

Ela­tion at their dis­cov­ery, how­ever, quickly turned to anxiety. Capt Anand Su­rawan, deputy com­man­der of the Thai Navy Seals who was run­ning an op­er­a­tional cen­tre in Tham Luang, sug­gested the boys and their coach might have to stay in the cave for four months un­til the rainy sea­son sub­sided.

Three Thai Seals went miss­ing dur­ing the op­er­a­tion for 23 hours, and when they fi­nally reap­peared, they were so weak from a lack of oxy­gen that they were rushed to the hos­pi­tal.

Four days af­ter the boys were found, Petty Of­fi­cer 1st class Sa­man, the re­tired Navy Seal who left his air­port se­cu­rity job to vol­un­teer, died as he was plac­ing air tanks on an un­der­wa­ter sup­ply route. His fam­ily de­clined an au­topsy, but some Thai of­fi­cials said he ran out of air in his tanks. Oth­ers be­lieve he suc­cumbed to hy­pother­mia.

“I’m very proud of him,” said PO1 Sa­man’s fa­ther, Wichai Gu­nan, a car me­chanic. “He is a hero who did all he could to help the boys.”

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.

Some­how we man­aged to get the boys out. I still can’t be­lieve it worked.



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

The op­er­a­tion kept shift­ing with each vari­able: the water, the air, the mud, even the men­tal and phys­i­cal state of the boys. Be­cause the boys could not swim, they needed full-face masks into which a rich oxy­gen mix was pumped.

But the masks the US team brought with them were sized for adults. So they tested the gear on vol­un­teer chil­dren in a lo­cal swim­ming pool, and dis­cov­ered that by pulling the five straps as tight as pos­si­ble, they would work.

The 30-strong US team rec­om­mended that each child be con­fined in a flex­i­ble plas­tic co­coon, called a Sked, a stan­dard part of the Air Force team’s gear.

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

Prime Min­is­ter Prayut Chan-o-cha said the boys had been given anti-anxiety med­i­ca­tion.

“They just had to lay there and be com­fort­able,” said Maj Hodges, leader of the US team.


Rescue work­ers take out equip­ment af­ter 12 foot­ball play­ers and their coach were res­cued from the Tham Luang cave com­plex in Chi­ang Rai on July 10.

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