Thai cave tragedy

‘My boyfriend was swept to his death’

The Daily Telegraph - - News review & features -

It was on June 23 that 12 Thai boys and their foot­ball coach, on a school trip, en­tered the Tham Luang cave in the north­ern­most prov­ince of Chi­ang Rai and failed to emerge. They have now been trapped for two weeks – and it was 10 long days be­fore Bri­tish divers were able to nav­i­gate the nar­row, flooded pas­sages to reach them in a race to beat the mon­soon rains.

Yet, the con­cept of time in such dank sub­ter­ranean dark­ness be­comes dif­fi­cult to fathom. What day was it, the boys in­quired of the divers when they fi­nally ar­rived. Now, as time ticks on, they con­tinue to sit tight, as ev­ery­one from the Thai au­thor­i­ties to the Bri­tish div­ing team and US billionaire Elon Musk, tries to es­tab­lish the safest way to free them.

That sense of dis­ori­en­ta­tion is some­thing He­lena Over­ton re­mem­bers well. Al­most 11 years ago, she, too, was trapped in a Thai cave, when a travel ad­ven­ture went fa­tally wrong. He­lena (née Carroll), from Soli­hull in the West Mid­lands, re­calls only too vividly the ter­ror that gripped her on that fate­ful ex­pe­di­tion in Oc­to­ber 2007, of which she was the sole sur­vivor.

Af­ter a tor­rent of water rushed into the cave where they were trekking, her boyfriend of four years, John Cullen, died. Their two guides and five other tourists – three of whom were chil­dren – were also swept to their deaths.

Over­ton, 32, has never wanted to talk pub­licly about her ordeal. But the on­go­ing drama in Chi­ang Rai has brought the mem­o­ries back.

It was sup­posed to be the trip of a life­time. Cullen had lost his fa­ther 12 months ear­lier, and was due to take over the fam­ily busi­ness. But, at just 24, he wanted to see

‘Those boys will be ter­ri­fied. No one can hear you down there’

more of the world be­fore he set­tled down. “So we de­cided to go trav­el­ling,” says Over­ton, who at 21 was work­ing in an ad­min­is­tra­tive role at Npower.

The cou­ple, who had known each other since pri­mary school, booked a year-long trip, dur­ing which they would spend sev­eral months in Thai­land, be­fore mov­ing on to Aus­tralia, then Ja­pan. It was while they were work­ing at an ele­phant sanc­tu­ary near Pat­taya, on Thai­land’s eastern gulf, that they met up with a friend who had just done a cave tour in the south­ern prov­ince of Su­rat Thani. “He told us to do it, so we booked,” she says.

But Over­ton, now a mother-of-two, had a long-stand­ing fear of drowning, and knew she was out of her com­fort zone. Sit­ting in her par­ents’ gar­den as her four-year-old daugh­ter plays nearby and her 10-week-old baby girl sleeps, she out­lines her trep­i­da­tion that day. “It wasn’t my type of thing,” she ex­plains. “I said to John, ‘You’ll take me back to the beach to­mor­row?’ and he said ‘Yeah’.”

With them on the visit to the Nam Talu cave in Khao Sok na­tional park were a Ger­man boy and his mother, as well as two Swiss girls and their step­mother. Ac­com­pa­nied by lo­cal guides, the group took a two-hour boat trip to a vil­lage, from where they trekked for two hours through the jun­gle to reach the mouth of the cave.

“I re­mem­ber think­ing ‘Why am I do­ing this?’” says Over­ton. “I knew there were go­ing to be bats and spi­ders.” Twenty min­utes in, dis­as­ter struck. “We heard this mas­sive roar,” she says. “We turned around and the water had just come in. It was like a big wave.”

Hor­ri­fied, Over­ton saw the Ger­man boy en­gulfed by the flood. “The water was ris­ing and ris­ing and we were get­ting pushed up. I just thought ‘We’ve had it’,” she says. But, above the water level, she found a small ledge. “John told me to sit there so I did. He was on it for a bit, but then he de­cided to go and get help. I never saw him again.”

Cullen’s body was found at the mouth of the cave a few hours later, along with the oth­ers. Over­ton, know­ing noth­ing of this, re­mained perched on the ledge, wait­ing for res­cuers to ar­rive. The group had left their pass­ports with the tour com­pany, so the peo­ple there would know there was still some­one miss­ing, she rea­soned. Yet, as time dragged on, no­body came.

“The op­er­a­tion you see now [to free the Thai boys], you think that’s go­ing to come into play, but it just didn’t,” she says.

Af­ter a while, Over­ton be­gan to ac­cept that she was go­ing to die there. “It was scary, be­cause I was all on my own,” she says. “I was scream­ing and shout­ing, ‘Help! Help! Help!’ Then I thought, ‘I’ll jump down my­self.

“But I was in the pitch black, I had no torch, noth­ing. The only thing I was watch­ing was a glow­worm, think­ing ‘If the water rises over it, I’ll be gone’.”

As more time passed, Over­ton won­dered if it would be prefer­able to get death over with. “Would it be eas­ier just to jump and get on with it, or to wait for the water to rise? Should I just end it?” she re­mem­bers think­ing.

“I thought, ‘if the water keeps ris­ing, it’s just go­ing to be more painful, that kind of death, so if I jump it would get it over and done with’.”

Ter­ri­fied, and shiv­er­ing in her bikini top, vest and shorts, she re­calls: “I started singing. I prayed. I think I was scared of go­ing un­con­scious. It was re­ally un­com­fort­able, and just so dark.

“It will be ter­ri­fy­ing for those boys. No one can hear you.”

Even­tu­ally, she heard shouts. “I’m here!” she screamed back. “I’m here!” It was a lo­cal man. He came bare­foot and car­ried only a bam­boo cane. Speak­ing bro­ken English, he guided her out and, with a group of other res­cuers, they trekked back through the jun­gle, leeches climb­ing their legs. Cov­ered in cuts and with sear­ing pain in the base of her spine, Over­ton was amazed to learn she had been trapped for 16 hours. She also learnt that the man who found her, whose name she doesn’t know, had in­sisted on ad­vanc­ing fur­ther into the cave af­ter res­cuers had given up, con­vinced she couldn’t have sur­vived. “I’ve al­ways wanted to find him, be­cause if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here to­day,” she says.

“They told me John was at the pier wait­ing for me. We got there and I said, ‘Where is he?’ They put me in an am­bu­lance and I said, ‘Just tell me where John is’. They said, ‘He’s dead’.”

Over­ton, who had to iden­tify the bod­ies of her fel­low trav­ellers, be­lieves she was falsely told that her boyfriend had sur­vived out of fear she would go into shock; po­ten­tially dan­ger­ous in her weak­ened state.

In­stead, the shock – along with the night­mares, dev­as­ta­tion and abid­ing sense of guilt – came af­ter­wards. Af­ter the life-threat­en­ing Weil’s dis­ease that kept her in hos­pi­tal for a week; af­ter she’d laid John to rest; af­ter she’d re­ceived coun­selling, re­turned to work the fol­low­ing Jan­uary and met her now-hus­band Ste­wart.

“It hits you later,” ad­mits Over­ton. “I had so much guilt for a long time.

“But I’ve moved on. I’ve got mar­ried, I’ve got two kids – you have to get on with it. I prob­a­bly would have done some­thing re­ally harm­ful to my­self if I hadn’t. But it’ll never leave me.”

She says the trapped Thai boys will be able to take some small com­fort from hav­ing each other for sup­port.

“But it will be very hard for them,” she adds. “It will stay with them for the rest of their lives.”

Sole sur­vivor: He­lena shortly af­ter be­ing res­cued from the flooded cave, top, and with her boyfriend, John Cullen, who died in the tragedy, above

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