FOUND! ...but how COULD they get them out alive?

Af­ter ten days trapped, the boys in the Thai cave dis­as­ter were des­per­ate, hal­lu­ci­nat­ing and slowly starv­ing — then two Bri­tish divers made con­tact. But as the sec­ond part of a riv­et­ing new book re­veals, the joy was short-lived...

Daily Mail - - News - by Liam Cochrane

WHEN the boys of a Thai foot­ball team went miss­ing in a flooded cave last June, an anx­ious world watched and waited. In this sec­ond ex­tract from his grip­ping ac­count of the res­cue, in­ves­tiga­tive re­porter LIAM COCHRANE de­scribes how the race against time seemed lost. But then a mir­a­cle hap­pened...

THE mums and dads were losing faith. When the boys and their foot­ball coach went miss­ing in the Tham Luang cave on Satur­day af­ter­noon, doc­tors had told them not to worry — peo­ple could sur­vive for days with­out food, as long as they had water, which the boys did.

But now it was Wed­nes­day, Day Five. Doubts were grow­ing. Were their boys still alive? For 16-year-old Night’s dad, this was when his hope started to wa­ver. It was hard not to imagine their weak lit­tle bod­ies wast­ing away in the dark­ness. What were they do­ing? Were they scared? How long could they sur­vive?

The father of Biw had al­ready felt de­spair af­ter go­ing into the flooded cave to help with the res­cue, feel­ing the chill of the thin un­der­ground air and see­ing the water rush­ing re­lent­lessly in. But he was de­ter­mined to at least bring his son’s body home for a fu­neral.

For the rescuers, con­di­tions were not im­prov­ing. The SEALs of the Thai Navy’s Spe­cial Forces head­ing the oper­a­tion set their sights on at least get­ting to the T-junc­tion — a cru­cial land­mark a mile or so inside the com­plex cave sys­tem that snaked through the moun­tain.

But they barely made 100 yards. The strong cur­rent, some­where be­tween a fast-mov­ing river and white-water rapids, drove them back. With all the mud and de­bris in the churn­ing water, one diver likened it to swim­ming in ‘a whirlpool of cafe latte’.

Ben Rey­menants, a Bel­gian who ran a div­ing school in the town of Phuket, went in with a guide line of thick rope to at­tach to the walls and haul him­self along. He inched for­ward, buf­feted this way and that, try­ing not to bump too hard into the jagged walls and over­hangs.

In nar­row parts of the flooded space, he got stuck. The dive com­puter on his wrist broke. His hel­met was bat­tered against the wall. He man­aged to lay about 100 me­tres of line, but even­tu­ally con­di­tions be­came too much.

‘It was be­yond my per­sonal lim­its,’ he said. ‘Just too many red flags — can’t see, got en­tan­gled in a re­stric­tion, down cur­rents, bro­ken com­puter.

‘And there’s no guar­an­tee the kids are alive, there’s no guar­an­tee they are where we think they are, so it’s a dou­ble spec­u­la­tion. You’re risk­ing your life for an if . . .’ There was also a gloomy feel­ing among the Bri­tish spe­cial­ist cave divers, who’d ar­rived to take part. Having seen how quickly the cave had flooded, they se­ri­ously doubted that the 12 boys of the Wild Boars soc­cer team and their coach could still be alive. Yet no one was pre­pared to give up. The urge ev­ery­one felt to res­cue them was too strong. Thou­sands of peo­ple were now in­volved in the in­ter­na­tional oper­a­tion, backed by vol­un­teers.

Food trucks, in­clud­ing mo­bile kitchens sent by the King of Thai­land from his palace, served 20,000 hot meals a day. Gi­ant vats of curry were stirred with cricket stump-sized la­dles.

Rescuers had their pick of bat­ter­ies, socks, un­der­wear, painkillers, balms, soap, sweets. Next to the med­i­cal tent, masseuses gave free neck rubs to re­lieve stress. Hair­dressers of­fered to cut hair.

Off site, more gen­eros­ity went largely un­seen. Ho­tels, re­sorts and vil­lage homes opened their doors for the res­cue teams, pro­vid­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion, meals and wash­ing clothes, also for free.

Flag­ging morale among the Thais was re­vived when a revered Bud­dhist monk came, med­i­tated at the cave en­trance and ap­pealed to the spir­its of the Moun­tain of the Sleep­ing Lady to let the boys out.

He de­clared: ‘Don’t worry — in a day or two the chil­dren will come out’. When the par­ents heard the pre­dic­tion, their hopes rose again.

But the best omen of all was that the mon­soon that caused the flood­ing had stopped and the divers could get back in the cave. Mean­while, on the moun­tain, drilling teams set up ma­chin­ery to bore holes, down which a mi­cro­phone could be dropped to lis­ten for life.

They could only make an ed­u­cated guess as to where in the cave com­plex the boys might be.

But at the very least, they ar­gued, they would make a racket with their drills, and the sound would vi­brate and echo through the por­ous lime­stone. This would send a message to the Wild Boars that help was com­ing. ‘If I was in the dark for six days,’ an en­gi­neer ex­plained, ‘I imagine I might lose hope, so we drilled to make noise and keep the kids hope­ful.’ AND in­deed, inside the cave, amid the con­stant drip­ping of water and the thuds and scrapes of their dig­ging, some­times the boys did hear sounds. One day, Titan thought he heard a he­li­copter. Biw heard a rooster crow. An­other time, a dog barked — they all heard that one.

Where were the sounds com­ing from? Were their minds play­ing tricks on them? Some of the noises gave them hope, but oth­ers scared them. On the ledge deep inside the moun­tain, ‘some­times we heard peo­ple’s voices talk­ing at the bot­tom of the mound but we didn’t see any­one there,’ said Biw.

Even more fright­en­ing was the un­nerv­ing sound of some­one call­ing their names. It sum­moned up Thai hor­ror sto­ries of ghosts. ‘Coach Ek told us that if we hear some­body call our names at night, don’t an­swer,’ said Biw.

There, inside the cave, time was run­ning out, lit­er­ally. Of the three watches the boys went in with, only one was still work­ing but it at least en­abled them to have some kind of rou­tine in the dark­ness.

In the morn­ing, they would fill their stom­achs with the water run­ning off the sta­lac­tites and then head to the top of the slope to dig at the back, in the hope of find­ing a route out. When 16-year-old Tee’s watch told them it was night, they lay down on the hard dirt to sleep.

It wasn’t com­fort­able, and they found them­selves con­stantly slip­ping down the slope.

When they slept it was usu­ally in short snatches.

But there was something else that kept them awake at night. Even at home, Titan, at 11 the youngest, was a rest­less sleeper who would some­times sleep­walk to the toi­let. In the cave it was worse. He talked and shouted in his sleep, keeping the oth­ers awake.

Some­times he would even jump up, still fast asleep, which was an­noy­ing but also po­ten­tially deadly. If he wan­dered off, he might hit his head or fall into the water. So ev­ery night, Coach Ek would hold on to him, sleep­ing lightly, wary his youngest player might dream him­self to death.

They still had work­ing torches, but they ra­tioned the light, know­ing it could be many more days un­til they were found. Most of the time they were in a dark­ness so pro­found it felt like a phys­i­cal sub­stance, ooz­ing around their bod­ies. It started to get into the boys’ sub­con­scious minds. One night, Dom dreamed he was be­ing chased by a black tiger. An­other time

Titan thought Coach Ek was a war­rior chas­ing him with a sword.

The line be­tween sleep and wake­ful­ness was of­ten un­clear in that dark­ness and all the more ter­ri­fy­ing.

As the days dragged on, all of the boys had mo­ments of de­spair and shed some tears. But Note wept more than the oth­ers. He simply didn’t think they were go­ing to get out alive. On July 1 it was his 15th birthday but there wasn’t much to cel­e­brate. They were alive, but for how much longer?

Af­ter nine days, they were inch­ing closer to­wards death, their bod­ies wast­ing away, their cheeks hol­low, their skin grey. With no food to turn into en­ergy, their bod­ies’ nor­mal chem­i­cal pro­cesses slowed and then shifted, seek­ing sus­te­nance else­where. The pro­tein in their mus­cles was bro­ken down into glu­cose, their fat turned into fatty acids and ke­tone. To fuel the life- giv­ing fun­da­men­tals, their bod­ies were con­sum­ing them from the inside.

The heart must keep pump­ing blood. The brain must keep think­ing. They must stay calm, con­serve their en­ergy. They must sur­vive. FOR the rescuers out­side, Sun­day, July 1, brought a lucky break. The weather was eas­ing. There had been no sub­stan­tial rain for the past 36 hours. That af­ter­noon, yel­low mea­sur­ing sticks at var­i­ous points within the cave showed the water level drop­ping.

With the cave still flooded, but the flow be­com­ing more man­age­able, for­eign dive in­struc­tors based in Thai­land vol­un­teered to go back in to lay down hun­dreds of yards of guide ropes through the flooded pas­sages, ty­ing them to sta­lac­tites and rocks as they edged once again to­wards the T-junc­tion.

Ex­pe­ri­enced Bri­tish divers John Volan­then and Rick Stan­ton joined them. Vis­i­bil­ity was still poor and div­ing blind put them on edge. When they bumped into any ob­ject in the water they half ex­pected it to be a body. They were con­stantly brac­ing them­selves for the worst.

But they were mak­ing progress and even­tu­ally bat­tled their way through the cave to the T-junc­tion. There was real hope at last.

For the par­ents out­side, though, the mood had turned grim again. Ten days had now gone by. It was too long. They were all mis­er­able and ex­hausted, stuck in a gutwrench­ing place some­where be­tween doubt and grief.

A doc­tor reck­oned that, af­ter ten days with­out food, the chance of a child sur­viv­ing was down to 10 per cent. Even those op­ti­mists in charge of the oper­a­tion were won­der­ing if it was time to switch from a res­cue strat­egy to a re­cov­ery one. That would be a dif­fer­ent dy­namic. A res­cue oper­a­tion in­volved push­ing the lim­its of safety and putting lives on the line for some­one else’s. The re­trieval of bod­ies would be a slower ef­fort, per­formed with care so as not to lose any more lives.

On the other hand, the boys and the coach might still be alive. They’d give it an­other day. This was still a res­cue ef­fort. Just. THAT night, it rained again, but the pumps in­stalled in the cave did their job. The water didn’t rise. The lev­els were finally under con­trol. The divers pushed fur­ther on into the cave. The pre­cise lo­ca­tion of the Wild Boars was still a guess.

Along the way though there were scat­tered clues such as muddy hand­prints on the cave wall that seemed to in­di­cate they had turned left at the T-junc­tion and were prob­a­bly some­where near a cav­ern known as Pat­taya Beach.

But what state would they be in? Would they even be alive?

John Volan­then and Rick Stan­ton now started from the T-junc­tion, lay­ing guide ropes as they went, un­til they came to a di­a­mond­shaped pinch-point. They swam through it, jam­ming their fin­gers into the silt to crawl for­ward against the cur­rent.

They reached a big sandy slope and came up for air. They had reached Pat­taya Beach — the cham­ber where ev­ery­one ex­pected the boys to have holed up.

But the ledge was empty. No one was there.

Having used a third of their air sup­ply al­ready, they should by rights have turned back, but they made a cal­cu­lated de­ci­sion to dig into their re­serves of air and keep go­ing. With time run­ning out, they were de­ter­mined to go as far as hu­manly pos­si­ble that day.

The boys had been trapped for ten days with­out food. The idea of stop­ping just short of them was pre­pos­ter­ous, thought John. The two divers pushed on with a sense of de­ter­mi­na­tion, but also with dread. ‘I was ab­so­lutely ex­pect­ing to find bod­ies in the water float­ing to­wards me,’ said John.

As they en­tered each new sump, they had lit­tle idea what was in store. Would it be a mere pud­dle or a long, flooded cham­ber? Would it be blocked with rocks, sta­lac­tites, de­bris or corpses?

Nav­i­ga­tion was dif­fi­cult in the murky pas­sages and they made slow progress for 350 yards un­til they came to a room-sized cham­ber and sur­faced. There was noth­ing on the steep muddy bank so they dived again and went on. ON THE next ledge along, 11-yearold Titan, the youngest of the Wild Boars, was fad­ing, his tiny body wast­ing away. ‘I felt faint, I lacked en­ergy and I was hun­gry,’ he re­called. He was think­ing about home-cooked food.

Food fan­tasies played on the boys’ minds con­stantly. It had been about 245 hours since any of them had eaten. Their faces were gaunt, their cheek­bones pro­trud­ing.

Their de­cline was not just phys­i­cal. As an­other day passed, their spir­its were fad­ing, too.

‘We were losing pa­tience, hope, phys­i­cal en­ergy and courage. We could not do any­thing to help. The only thing that I could do was pray,’ said Adul, the only Chris­tian of the group.

For the team’s cap­tain Dom, to­mor­row would be his 14th birthday. He ral­lied the boys and urged them to keep dig­ging to break through the back wall and find a way out of the cave. He didn’t know it, but his birthday present was about to come early.

At around 8pm, the boys and Coach Ek were up on the ledge, some dig­ging, oth­ers rest­ing. ‘At that mo­ment, I heard peo­ple talk­ing,’ said Adul.

They all froze in the dark­ness, strain­ing to hear and fear­ing their minds were play­ing tricks on them. Adul grabbed a torch and took off down the slope as fast as his weak body would carry him.

As he got to the edge, his legs went from under him and he slid into the water. He clam­bered back on the ledge, looked be­hind him at the water and saw, to his amaze­ment, two men in div­ing gear.

‘It was a mir­a­cle mo­ment,’ he re­mem­bered. ‘I re­alised they were Bri­tish and so I just said hello.’

By this stage, the rest of the team had scram­bled to the edge.

From the water, Rick Stan­ton counted them as they came down. As he scanned his torch across

their faces, he saw they were all there. ‘Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,’ the boys cho­rused at him.

Adul and Biw, the only two English speak­ers, trans­lated for the oth­ers. Adul asked, ‘When will we go out­side?’ and John had to ex­plain that it would not be to­day. But many peo­ple would come to res­cue them, he promised. ‘We are just the first.’

The Bri­tish divers hauled them­selves onto the op­po­site bank, but to be­gin with stayed sep­a­rated from the boys by a chan­nel of water.

It was a de­lib­er­ate pre­cau­tion. They had no idea what state of mind the boys and Coach Ek would be in. They feared that, starv­ing and des­per­ate, they might to try to rush them and grab their div­ing gear to escape. But af­ter a few min­utes, they quickly re­alised the 13 were calm and posed no threat.

For the next 40 min­utes, John and Rick sat with the Wild Boars on their ledge. To raise the kids’ spir­its, they asked them to cheer for the cam­era — a cheer for Thai­land, a cheer for Amer­ica, an­other for the UK, and on it went.

The boys’ phys­i­cal condition was re­mark­ably good. They were gaunt but un­in­jured and didn’t ap­pear sick. They even man­aged to smile, though when they did their teeth looked over­sized in their pinched faces,

‘We’re hun­gry,’ a boy pleaded. ‘We have to eat, eat, eat!’ The divers hadn’t brought any food with them but promised they would send the SEALs in with sup­plies as soon as pos­si­ble.

Low­er­ing them­selves back into the water, they said farewell, and started back through the sump.

Car­ried by the cur­rent, their jour­ney back was quicker and slightly less ar­du­ous than it had been go­ing.

News of the boys be­ing found alive had been mes­saged ahead of them and reached the world be­fore they even got to the cave en­trance. All around there were cheers and tears of joy. It seemed the im­pos­si­ble had come true.

The pri­or­ity now was to get back to them with food and med­i­cal sup­plies as soon as pos­si­ble. The Thais took con­trol and an army doc­tor, Dr Pak, and three SEALs headed into the cave.

It was a dif­fi­cult jour­ney for them, still having to bat­tle against the cur­rent. They were not trained cave divers, the water was cold and the dive long. They suf­fered from cramps and were forced to rest be­fore even­tu­ally mak­ing it to the ledge. There they re­as­sured the boys they would re­main with them as long as needed — even if that meant waiting half a year, un­til the cave drained.

Dr Pak got to work, get­ting some en­ergy and nutri­ents into the boys’ sys­tems with­out over­load­ing them. Their small bod­ies were in life-sup­port mode, slowly break­ing down the fat and mus­cle to sup­ply a trickle of en­ergy, enough to keep the heart pump­ing and the lungs ex­pand­ing.

Many of the body’s chem­i­cal pro­cesses had stopped, changed or re­versed.

They were at risk of what doc­tors call refeed­ing syn­drome — the point of star­va­tion at which too much food too soon could kill them.

A sud­den rush of glu­cose would over­load the sys­tem, send­ing their phos­phate, potas­sium and mag­ne­sium lev­els into chaos. The re­sult could be delir­ium, seizures, res­pi­ra­tory failure, heart failure, coma or even death.

Al­though the boys were hun­gry and longed for rich pork and fast food, they had to be pa­tient. The rescuers had brought lit­tle squeezy pack­ets of high­en­ergy gels. These tiny shots of life would have to suf­fice for now, grad­u­ally bring­ing their bod­ies back from the brink.

Gen­er­ally their condition was sur­pris­ingly good. The doc­tor ex­am­ined them and found no se­ri­ous in­juries. They needed med­i­cal care, but not ur­gently.

He ap­plied an­ti­sep­tic solution to the boys’ scratches. ‘This will kill the in­fec­tion,’ he told one boy, as he swabbed his foot.

‘ Then once you are out, we will find you a beau­ti­ful nurse.’ IN THE out­side world, the joy of find­ing the team alive was the big­gest news story on the planet.

Mil­lions of peo­ple joined in the relief and cel­e­brated their sur­vival. But for those re­spon­si­ble for get­ting the boys and their soc­cer coach out, the unal­loyed plea­sure didn’t last long.

Af­ter the news had sunk in, it was re­placed by the re­al­i­sa­tion of how deep inside the moun­tain the boys were, and how hard it was go­ing to be to bring them back to the sur­face.

Peo­ple had been res­cued from caves, but never had such a dif­fi­cult set of prob­lems faced a res­cue party — the chil­dren’s ages; their mal­nour­ished state; the long, flooded route out; the un­cer­tainty of the weather.

In an ideal world, the teams would be able to suck enough water out of the sumps for the Wild Boars to wade out the way they walked in.

But this wasn’t vi­able — some of the pas­sages were 15ft deep, and more rain was com­ing.

The cau­tious solution was to wait. The boys and Coach Ek had en­ergy gels, medicine and com­pany.

Per­haps they should camp on that muddy bank for the next four to six months, un­til the rains stopped and the pas­sages drained.

The riski­est option was to try to dive them out.

The Wild Boars could all swim, but none had ever scuba dived. Even for a com­pe­tent recre­ational diver, the way out was treach­er­ous. For a non- diver, it would be al­most im­pos­si­ble.

All op­tions were on the ta­ble, and all were bad.

AdApted by tony Ren­nell from the Cave by Liam Cochrane, pub­lished by ABC Books at £15.99. Copy­right © Liam Cochrane 2019. to buy a copy call 0844 571 0640 or go to www. mail­shop.co.uk/books.

Courage: The trapped boys smile for a selfie be­fore be­ing res­cued. Inset, Thai sol­diers wade through flood waters

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