Thai cave drama

In­side story of the res­cue mis­sion

The Guardian - - WORLD - Michael Safi

In the end it went much as planned. Divers man­aged to carry, pull and at times swim the 12 young Wild Boars foot­ballers and their coach along more than two miles of flooded and cramped tun­nels as peo­ple around the world fol­lowed their progress.

But brief­ings by Thai of­fi­cials and in­ter­views with six Aus­tralian, Amer­i­can, Chi­nese and Thai divers have re­vealed ex­ten­sive de­tails of an op­er­a­tion some were un­sure could work even af­ter it started on Sun­day morn­ing.

“At the end, af­ter we man­aged to get ev­ery­one out, we were just sit­ting there shak­ing our heads,” said Claus Rasmussen, a Dan­ish diver who helped to ex­e­cute the res­cue. “We have no idea how this worked or why, but it did.”

The plan to ferry the boys out ac­com­pa­nied by two ex­pert divers and es­corted by a daisy chain of sup­port work­ers started to firm up as the most likely op­tion on the even­ing of 5 July, said Ruengrit Changk­wanyuen, a diver from Thai­land who helped to co­or­di­nate the cave div­ing teams and to carry the first two boys to a field hospi­tal when they emerged on Sun­day.

By then the boys and their coach had been trapped for more than 13 days af­ter what was sup­posed to be a fun ex­cur­sion into the cave turned into a night­mare when flash floods cut off their exit. They were not dis­cov­ered un­til 2 July, when John Volan­then, a Bri­ton, found them hud­dled on a muddy slope nearly two miles in­side the cave.

By the time the res­cue plan was formed, more than 1m cu­bic me­tres of wa­ter had been drained from the cave us­ing pumps but the boys would still be un­der­wa­ter, teth­ered to a diver, for much of the first mile of the jour­ney.

For the last mile, they would be on stretch­ers at­tached to a pul­ley sys­tem, guided home by more than 100 res­cuers fanned out along the path of the exit route.

Changk­wanyuen helped to ar­range the de­liv­ery of equip­ment in­clud­ing small wet­suits, full-face scuba masks and un­der­wa­ter lights, or­der­ing huge sup­plies in case some of it failed. Sa­man Gu­nan, a Thai navy Seal, died in the caves af­ter run­ning out of oxy­gen. He had been part of the dive team set­ting up air tanks along the res­cue route.

Au­thor­i­ties had been try­ing to avoid bring­ing the boys out through wa­ter, which Rasmussen had ear­lier said was “def­i­nitely the scari­est op­tion”. But what was the al­ter­na­tive? Keep­ing the boys in the cave cham­ber un­til Jan­uary – when the wa­ter lev­els would sub­side – was look­ing in­creas­ingly risky, af­ter medics re­ported oxy­gen lev­els had dropped to 15% and that the boys could fall into a coma if it fell to 12%.

“That made us worry a lot,” Apakorn Youkongkaew, a rear ad­mi­ral in the Thai navy, said. “It was hard to fight na­ture. What would we do if the oxy­gen kept de­creas­ing?” Pre­vent­ing in­fec­tion in the dank en­vi­ron­ment would also be more dif­fi­cult. “It is very likely that in­fec­tions would have started set­ting in, and the boys would have de­te­ri­o­rated a lot faster than they al­ready were,” said Rasmussen.

An­other plan, to drill about 600 me­tres into the boys’ cham­ber from the thicket of jun­gle above, was also founder­ing. En­gi­neers could not fig­ure out where to drill. “It was like find­ing a nee­dle in an ocean,” said Youkongkaew.

Mon­soon rain pre­dicted for the morn­ing of 7 July might have flooded the cave, mak­ing an ex­trac­tion im­pos­si­ble. When it didn’t come, res­cuers knew they had to go for it. “We had enough peo­ple to run the teams, the en­vi­ron­ment was right, we had a win­dow with the weather,” said Rasmussen. “We thought: ‘This is go­ing to be the best op­tion we’re go­ing to get’.”

In­side the cave on Sun­day morn­ing, the boys were ex­cited, says Changk­wanyuen. “They were like, ‘Oh wow, I’m go­ing to go div­ing’,” he said.

How­ever, the res­cuers were be­set with anx­i­ety. “There were way too many un­knowns,” said Rasmussen.

Of most con­cern was Chanin Wi­boon­run­gru­eng, nick­named Ti­tan, at 11 the youngest of the group. Res­cuers sourced the small­est mask they could find – but had to make it even smaller.

When Wi­boon­run­gru­eng started his jour­ney out of the cave on Tues­day, they were still un­sure whether its seal would hold. “We feared that it wouldn’t fit him prop­erly. That was the big­gest worry,” Rasmussen said.

Res­cuers planned to start with the strong­est boy, said Changk­wanyuen. “But the Aus­tralian doc­tor, Richard Har­ris, eval­u­ated the boys and said ev­ery­one was equally strong – so they picked among them­selves to see who would come out first,” he said.

Thai of­fi­cials said this week that the ul­ti­mate de­ci­sion was made by the boys’ coach, Ekaphol Chanta­wong. “The coach se­lected. He wrote the or­der down: one, two, three, four, five,” said Narongsak Osa­tanakorn, the head of the joint com­mand cen­tre co­or­di­nat­ing the op­er­a­tion.

The boys were given anti-anx­i­ety med­i­ca­tion. Res­cuers would not com­ment on its strength, say­ing it was a mat­ter for the Thai gov­ern­ment. “If they were anx­ious, they could squirm,” Youkongkaew said. “Some were con­scious and some slept. There was no prob­lem.”

Rasmussen was sta­tioned at Pat­taya Beach, a rock mound about two miles in­side the cave and the long­est dry patch be­tween the boys’ cham­ber and “cham­ber three” – a for­ward op­er­at­ing base for the res­cue op­er­a­tion.

On each of the three morn­ings of the res­cue, he would make the two-hour trip to his des­ig­nated area with two other divers, train his eyes on the dark wa­ter beyond him, and wait.

At about 11.30am on Sun­day, a diver emerged hold­ing the first of the boys. “As a team we were work­ing to­gether to put them in a

‘Every­thing was col­laps­ing. The cave spirit didn’t want us there any more. I’ve had enough, it was say­ing. It’s time to go’ Ruengrit Changk­wanyuen Thai res­cue diver

stretcher as soon as they ar­rived on Pat­taya Beach and get­ting them back into the wa­ter as fast as we pos­si­bly could,” he said.

“I was crouch­ing, crawl­ing, walk­ing through wa­ter and over rocks, keep­ing the kids in the stretcher so they could be pro­tected through all of this,” he said.

Nav­i­gat­ing the steep, wet and muddy path in his sec­tion took about 20 min­utes. Rasmussen stressed over every sec­ond, aware that the boys would be in cold wa­ter for two hours, risk­ing their core body tem­per­a­tures fall­ing to dan­ger­ous lows. “Time was of an essence for us,” he said. “If we fell or were slow it would in­ter­rupt not just the flow of what’s hap­pen­ing but the whole res­cue.”

All the divers said it was not un­til the end of the first day that they started to be­lieve they might suc­ceed. “It was only when we made it out on Sun­day and heard the kids were all very good and on their way to Chi­ang Rai hospi­tal, we thought – fuck – this might ac­tu­ally work,” said Rasmussen.

The op­er­a­tion be­came more ef­fi­cient with each day, but he said the slight­est hitch – such as heavy rain – might have con­demned some of the boys to stay­ing in­side the cave. “We were still ready to back out com­pletely on Mon­day night,” Rasmussen said.

About three hours af­ter the last boys and Chanta­wong made it out on Tues­day, with the last navy per­son­nel leav­ing the cave, the en­tire res­cue sys­tem sud­denly col­lapsed. “All of a sud­den a wa­ter pipe burst and the main pump stopped work­ing,” he said. “We re­ally had to run from the third cham­ber to the en­trance be­cause the wa­ter level was ris­ing very quickly – like 50cm every 10 min­utes.”

Aus­tralian divers in cham­ber three de­scribed hear­ing screams far­ther up the tun­nel, then see­ing a rush of head­lamps com­ing to­wards them. “It was like a movie scene, every­thing was col­laps­ing,” Changk­wanyuen said. “It was one of those acts of God. The cave spirit didn’t want us in there any more. It was say­ing, ‘I’ve had enough of you guys, it’s time to leave’.”

Rasmussen agrees the tim­ing was eerie. “That every­thing breaks down as soon as every­body’s safe? It’s just weird,” he said.

The cave is now empty again, flooded and in­ac­ces­si­ble. Divers will need to re­turn in five months to col­lect their equip­ment.

Rasmussen said he would seek out two par­tic­u­lar boul­ders that had both­ered him. “I’m go­ing to find them and spit on them,” he said. “They spent the week bang­ing my toes and head.”

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: AFP/THAI NAVY

Thai navy Seals leave the caves af­ter the res­cue. One of the dive team died last week when he ran out of air

Wild Boars foot­ball team mem­bers and their coach sought ad­ven­ture in the cave but be­came trapped un­der­ground for al­most two weeks

▲ More than 1m cu­bic me­tres of wa­ter was pumped out of the cave be­fore the res­cue plan was put into op­er­a­tion

PHO­TO­GRAPH: XIN­HUA/REX

The res­cued boys were taken to Chi­ang Rai’s Prachanukroh hospi­tal, where they were checked for in­juries and in­fec­tions

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: LINH PHAM/GETTY

The boys af­ter they were found in­side the Tham Luang cave. Be­low left, a group from across the bor­der in Myan­mar came to pray for the boys’ safety

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