For those who have not yet heard: all the kids and their soccer coach have been rescued from the caves. All remaining rescue personnel have made it back to safety. The kids and their coach are now receiving medical attention, and all rescue operations are being broken down. The world basically just gave a collective sigh of relief, though we remember the hard work of the rescue personnel and the sacrifice given by former Thai SEAL Saman Kunan (alternatively spelled on some sites as Gunan).
Here is a basic rundown of the story, from the beginning.
The team goes missing
On June 23, twelve boys from a soccer team and their coach ventured into the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system in northern Thailand. Their soccer team is called the “Wild Boars” and they are between the ages of 11 and 16. However, monsoon season had swept over Thailand, and heavy rains began to fall very quickly. Due to the nature of the cave system, they were not able to immediately exit and became trapped, under threat of the rising water levels. Many of the children could not swim, and thankfully none of them tried to swim all of the way out.
They sat there for days. In the darkness, unable to discern night from day. They couldn’t have known whether or not rescue personnel were coming for them, but they simply waited. No doubt many of these kids will wrestle with side effects of such a traumatizing event, let alone some of the events that were to follow.
Meanwhile, a park ranger noticed items the “Wild Boars” had left behind near the entrance of the cave. He called it in, and the first of many rescue personnel began to respond.
Rescue efforts begin
In the ensuing days, the situation began to grab international attention. No one was sure where the kids were in the cave system, or even if they were still alive. Military divers were sent to the scene, to include the extremely capable Underwater Demolition Assault Unit (UDAU), colloquially known as the Royal Thai Navy SEALs. Other countries were involved as well — advisers from the U.S. military as well as Australian Federal Police and members of the Australian Defense Force.
The Royal Thai Navy SEALs worked with professional divers from other countries to scour the caves. As they weren’t sure exactly what had happened at the time, they were also using drones, dogs, and other methods to try to discern the location of the missing boys in the area. This was all done combating the monsoon rains that made it very difficult to operate in, not to mention further complicating the dives into the caves. They currents were rough; the caves were dark and extremely hard to navigate. Light from the divers would barely travel in the murky water.
On July 2, two British caving divers were continuing to explore the caves as far as they could. Richard Stanton is a professional diver who retired from fighting fires years before. Now 57, he has refined his diving skills over the years and assisted in several rescue operations around the world. John Volanthen, 47, is an IT consultant who is also quite the athlete — marathons and climbing mountains are on his resume on top of a wealth of cave diving experience. The two were under the oversight of Robert Harper of the British Cave Rescue Council.
Assisting the Royal Thai SEALs, the two were emplacing lines that would help other divers as they pushed forward. Volanthen ran out of line, so he moved upward to surface as soon as he could. It was there they found the team, shuddering in the dark.
The moment Volanthen and Stanton found the boys:
This miraculous find, only possible by the heroic efforts of all those involved, was a huge win for the rescue operation. However, the sense of elation soon dissipated as people realized just how difficult it would be to get the boys and their coach out of the caves.
It was soon very clear how difficult the rescue operations were going to be. All sorts of theories were thrown around — some of the more credible ones went as follows:
- Teach the kids to dive and guide them out.
- Drill into their location and extract them from above.
- Pump out the water as quickly as possible and walk/swim the boys out.
- Wait out the rainy season (which would have been months) and then walk/swim the boys out when the water levels receded.
Regardless of what they wound up doing, they began pumping out water as fast as humanly possible.
Not all of these things were possible. Drilling all the way down would have meant drilling the depth of two empire state buildings, according to an apt comparison by CNN. Even then, drilling those distances and hitting the cave where the boys were trapped would be incredibly difficult. However, many of the caves around those areas are unmapped, so there were efforts to try to find a natural cave that got as close as possible to the boys and then potentially drilling from there. Any talk of drilling was also met with concern as to how to ensure the stability of the caves as the drilling would occur.
Pumping the water was working from time to time, but they were fighting against the rains. This led to the last option on the list above, which they weren’t sure would be possible given the depleting levels of oxygen in the caves. Still, authorities began to speak and plan as if this whole thing would be a matter of months before it was over.
These possibilities were seen across the world, and many others had a whole host of theories or ideas as to how to get them out. However, many were not possible — most theories made from the comfort of home are not rooted in the information available on the ground. One contributing factor was many of the infographics put out by various media outlets. They were built to convey the sheer distance from the opening of the cave to the room where the team was trapped (2.5 miles). However, to make the maps more digestible to a general audience, the cave drawings were generally simplified and not meant to illustrate specific twists, turns and other obstacles the divers would have to overcome. Incidentally, many of these graphics may have not accurately conveyed the sheer complexity of the dives, and the obstacles the divers had to navigate.
These challenges were tragically snapped to reality in the minds of many when a diver by the name of Saman Kunan, 38, lost his life in the relief efforts. He died ferrying much-needed oxygen tanks through the turbulent, murky waters of the cave system. Kunan was a former Royal Thai Navy SEAL who had come back to help out.
The international rescue efforts were something to behold. Countries from all over the world were pitching in however they could, including Laos, China, Burma, Finland, and Denmark. Elon Musk and a crew of his engineers even traveled to Thailand to assist in whatever way they necessary.
(Author’s opinion: Although authorities were not able to use any of Musk’s ideas at the time, I think it’s important to realize when public figures and influencers are actually willing to go out into the mud and the dirt with everyone else and see how they can help. Too often they stay on the other side of the world and make snarky remarks from the comfort of their own homes. Even Musk, after positing several ideas over Twitter, said that he could not accurately give any great ideas without actually being there. And he went there)
Those running the rescue operation decided to get the boys out sooner rather than later. Certain conditions in the weather had made this possible, and they began to prepare the boys for extraction. At first they had provided each boy and the coach with wetsuits — not all of the wetsuits would fit the malnourished, fatigued kids. They found smaller ones and ferried them up as well.
Remember, many of these kids could not swim and none of them had any dive experience whatsoever. They were low on oxygen, starving, weak, and under a massive amount of stress. The youngest boy was 11 years old.
The operation went as follows: one diver would lead, with the child in tow (the kid would wear a full faced breathing mask, tethered into the lead diver who also held the boy’s oxygen). Another diver would follow. All three would use the lines all the way out of the cave. This entire ordeal would have been extremely difficult — there were reports of one section where the diver had to squeeze his body through, pushing his tank through as well. While details are still coming out on the rescue, approximately 0.6 miles (one kilometer) of the cave system is completely underwater. Swimming that distance with a kid tethered to you while holding his air supply in conditions like that — it made for a very technically complex operation. One moment of panic could have been devastating.
It’s not known who exactly comprised these dive groups — they were led by the Royal Thai Navy SEALs. Apparently, some of the other lead divers were from the United States, the UK, Japan and Australia.
July 8 and 9 saw the first groups of boys rescued successfully, and the final batch (including the coach) were finally escorted to safety on Tuesday, July 10. The final mission rescuing the last boys and the coach took a total of nine hours to get them out — this was no easy operation.
It was eight days since the moment they were found until all boys and their coach were successfully rescued. They were trapped for a total of 17 days before every one of them was rescued. By the end of the entire ordeal, over 1,000 people were involved in the efforts to return these kids home.
They are now receiving medical attention in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand.
On their Facebook page, the Royal Thai Navy SEALs said that, “We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science or what.” Needless to say, those SEALs and everyone else involved can be hailed as nothing but heroes for their successful efforts in saving the “Wild Boars.”
Featured image: In this undated photo released by Royal Thai Navy on Saturday, July 7, 2018, Thai rescue team members walk inside a cave where 12 boys and their soccer coach have been trapped since June 23, in Mae Sai, Chiang Rai province, northern Thailand. The local governor in charge of the mission to rescue them said Saturday that cooperating weather and falling water levels over the last few days had created appropriate conditions for evacuation, but that they won’t last if it rains again. | Royal Thai Navy via AP