Saman Kunan (alternatively spelled Gunan) was a former Underwater Demolition Assault Unit (UDAU) Operator, otherwise known as a Royal Thai Navy SEAL. He died during the recovery efforts to save the children trapped in the caves in northern Thailand. He was part of an effort to send air tanks up and down the submerged parts of the cave system, and lost consciousness while underwater having run out of air.
Professional divers have said that this dive is incredibly difficult. It’s fraught with small openings, sharp turns, huge inclines the size of buildings, and heavy currents that toss you around injudiciously. And all of this is deep within a cave with no exterior light.
Men like Saman Kunan are still out there working relentlessly to save these kids and their coach, but it was Kunan who has lost his life in this endeavor. We salute him and his truly selfless efforts in this harrowing ordeal.
What are the new threats?
The oxygen levels where the kids have been holed up for almost two weeks now has dropped from the normal 21% to 15%, which could threaten hypoxia and ultimately death. Oxygen tanks are being brought alongside food, water, and necessary medical supplies to keep everyone trapped in as good condition as possible. Still, the lowering levels of oxygen may make it impossible to wait until the monsoon passes over.
Authorities have expressed concerns as more heavy rains are expected to fall on Sunday, which could further complicate the situation.
The death of Saman Kunan, an experienced navy diver, is a harsh reminder of the sheer difficulty of navigating these caves underwater. Many of the children cannot swim, they have never used dive gear, they are weak and suffering from low oxygen levels, malnourishment and exhaustion, and not all of them have even been able to fit in the wetsuits provided (they are currently getting more). As the situation develops it is becoming clear that Thai authorities consider diving them out to be a very last resort — even with professional divers guiding them (who struggle themselves during this swim), ropes to grab onto, and other forms of help, it’s still an incredibly dangerous journey that would likely claim the lives of many should they try to dive out. One concern is that if a child panics during the journey, he may not harm himself, but also a rescuer. Some estimates say it could take up to three hours to completely exfiltrate one child.
It’s a 2.5 mile journey to the opening of the cave. Much of that distance is swimming through those caverns in the submerged portions with incredible obstacles — for example, some of the cave openings only allow for one person to pass through at a time.
Elon Musk has sent engineers from his companies The Boring Co. and SpaceX to Mae Sai to assist. Musk has posited several creative solutions to the task at hand, but he admitted that you cannot accurately assess a situation without being on the ground yourself. They may come up with new ideas entirely, or they may also be able to assist in resources and supplementing the tasks that are already underway, like pumping out mass amounts of water to combat the rainfall.
SpaceX & Boring Co engineers headed to Thailand tomorrow to see if we can be helpful to govt. There are probably many complexities that are hard to appreciate without being there in person.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) July 6, 2018
Why can’t they dig down to the cave?
In 2010, 33 Chilean miners were trapped for 69 days. They were stuck 2,300 feet underground and were 3 miles from the cave’s entrance. Like the situation with the boys in Thailand, getting them out was an international effort and captivated the world until the end. Several drill teams were employed and they were eventually reached. The rescue teams dropped man-sized capsules down into the their drilling tunnel and pulled them out one by one. All 33 survived.
Drilling in this situation in Thailand is quite difficult. First of all, CNN recently made the apt comparison — these kids are stuck the distance of two empire state buildings underground. They may not have the time to wait for drill teams to reach them — oxygen is running short and the monsoon could pick up. It also may be difficult to accurately reach the boys while digging, though Elon Musk has offered the services of Boring Co and their state of the art “advanced ground penetrating radar,” as well as their digging capabilities.
Much of the caves in the area remain unmapped as well, so experts are searching for any possible alternative natural opening that could lead them as close to the soccer team as possible.
Featured images courtesy of the Associated Press, compiled by the author.