In one of the most daring rescues in modern history, 12 members of a Thai soccer team and their coach have been rescued after spending a staggering 18 days in a cave. After going missing when they explored the Tham Luang Nang Non Cave in northern Chiang Rai on June 23, people feared the worst. And even when the group was discovered by British divers eight days later, their ordeal was far from over.
This was because heavy waters from the raining season had made passage out of the cave nigh impossible. With no other exit known, rescuers concluded that they had two options: the group would have to wait for the water level to go down naturally (a process which could have taken up to four months), or be taught how to dive and attempt to make the perilous journey out themselves, even though none of them could swim.
The former option was removed from the table soon after it emerged that oxygen levels in the cave were rapidly depleting – staying inside for up to four months simply wasn’t an option, especially when it could flood even more. But diving out of the cave with no experience appeared to offer the group a slim chance of survival – especially after an experienced diver and former Navy SEAL, Saman Kunan, died whilst trying to deliver the group supplies.
Now freed from the cave, while the boys’ lives may now be saved, a number of precautions still have to be taken to ensure that their conditions do not deteriorate further. They are having to, for example, wear sunglasses to protect their eyes after being stuck in the dark for such a prolonged period of time, and they are all being kept in hospital to ensure that they did not contract any transmittable diseases while underground.
To see the moment when the boys were first discovered by rescuers after eight days in the cave, check out the video below:
Jesada Chokdumrongsuk, deputy director-general of the Public Health Ministry, said, “The kids are footballers so they have high immune systems.” He then added, “Everyone is in high spirits and are happy to get out. But we will have a psychiatrist to evaluate them.”
The question on everyone’s minds, however, is this: how on Earth did they manage to escape what looked like their certain fate? The answer to this question lies in the actions of experienced divers and, of course, the boys’ bravery. Together, they swam 2.5 miles out of the cave.
Their journey was aided by the fact that almost 40% of the water in the cave had been pumped out. To put this into context, this was so much water that the fields in nearby farms flooded. However, the divers still had to act quickly because of the likelihood that it would rain again.
As the picture above demonstrates, each boy made their way through the cave’s narrow passageways with the help of two experienced divers. They were given full face masks designed for beginner divers while the experts helped them carried their oxygen masks.
To see how narrow the most dangerous parts of the route out were, check out the video below:
According to CNN, the cave had a “pinch” point which was a mere 15 inches wide. This meant that the boys had no options but to separate from their experienced guides, in almost total darkness, so that each of them could swim through it individually.
“They are forced to do something that no kid has ever done before,” Ivan Karadzic, a diver on the rescue team, told the BBC. “They are diving in something considered an extremely hazardous environment in zero visibility. The only light that is in there is the torchlight we bring ourselves.”
CNN explained exactly how the boys made it through the cave:
“The most dangerous part of the journey out of the labyrinth cave system is the first kilometer, during which they are required to squeeze through a narrow flooded channel.
Rescuers need to hold the boys’ oxygen tanks in front of them and swim pencil-like through submerged holes. Having completed this section, the boys are then handed over to separate, specialist rescue teams, who help assist them through the remainder of the cave, much of which they can wade through.”
It took a whopping nine hours for the first four boys to escape on Sunday. They were reportedly the strongest of the group. Then, on Tuesday 10, July, the world received the news that it had been waiting for with baited breath: all 12 boys and their coach had made it out alive.
“The operation went much better than expected,” acting Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn of Chiang Rai, Thailand, said, the Associated Press reported.
“I cannot understand how cool these small kids are, you know?” diver Karadzic said. “Incredibly strong kids. Unbelievable almost.”
Even though the boys were in a situation which could cause the majority of adults to panic, they were able to keep calm thanks to their coach.
Once he was able to communicate with the outside world, coach Ekaphol Chantawong, known as Ake, wrote a letter to the boys’ parents apologizing for taking them into the cave system, but they said that they did not blame him for unknowingly leading them into danger.
“I promise I will take care of the kids as best as I can,” Ake wrote.
According to reports, Ake was the weakest member of the group when they were discovered by British divers. This was because he had refused to eat himself so that the boys, whose care he was charged with, could. He also taught the boys how to meditate so that they would remain calm.
Pictured below is an artist’s depiction of Ake which has gone viral on Thai social media:
Prior to becoming a soccer coach, Ake had spent ten years training to become a monk at a Buddhist monastery.
“He could meditate up to an hour,” his aunt told Associated Press. “It has definitely helped him and probably helps the boys to stay calm.”
Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University’s medical school, David Spiegel, said that Ake’s actions helped the boys by “allowing their fearful and negative thoughts to flow through them like a storm passing, rather than fighting their fear.”
One of the boy’s mothers also praised their coach, telling Associated Press, “Look at how calm they were sitting there waiting,” she said, referring to the video above of the boys being discovered in the cave. “No one was crying or anything. It was astonishing.”
Needless to say, the sigh of relief which was breathed by the world when the group were rescued was at its greatest in Thailand. The entire country erupted into spontaneous celebrations after news that the group had all been saved emerged.
“Today Thai people, team Thailand, achieved mission impossible,” said Narongsak Osatanakorn, the head of the joint command centre coordinating the operation. This news was immediately met with applause.
“Doctors have treated the boys and now all of them are OK and cheerful. They talk normally. No fever,” said Jesada Chokedamrongsuk, a physician from the Thai ministry of public health.
Namhom Boonpiam, whose son Mongkol was freed from the cave earlier in the week told the Guardian that she was “happy but sleepy”.
Unfortunately, it will be a while before Boonpiam is able to see her son as he will remain in quarantine until it has been confirmed by doctors that he does not have any infectious diseases. But it has already been established that none of the children are in any immediate medical danger.
But no story about this remarkable rescue operation would be complete without honoring former Navy SEAL, Saman Kunan, who made the ultimate sacrifice to ensure the group’s safety. He lost consciousness in the cave on a trip back from delivering the group supplies.
Kunan had been working in a voluntary capacity, placing oxygen tanks in assigned locations to aid the group’s escape but selflessly chose to take the minimum amount of oxygen back for himself so that the group would have more. Although his diving partner made frantic attempts to save the 38-year-old, he was pronounced dead shortly after. He is now being given a royally-sponsored funeral to honor his sacrifice.
We would like to take this opportunity to commend not only Kunan but everyone else involved in pulling off this seemingly impossible rescue.