COVER STORY

One night; 400 hours

How 12 boys and their football coach were rescued from Tham Luang cave in Thailand

THAILAND-ACCIDENT/CAVE All smiles: soldiers take out machines after the boys and coach were rescued in tham luang cave complex in chiang rai | Reuters

The heavens opened up in the night, and no one is complaining. Doi Nang Non (Mountain of the Sleeping Lady) has pulled a coverlet of grey clouds over herself and gone to sleep. Deep inside the mountain, rescue personnel spent the night sleeping in the mud. Sixty kilometres to the south, hawk-eyed doctors watched over the 12 Wild Boars and coach Ek at the Chiangrai Prachanukroh Hospital. They have been vaccinated for rabies and tetanus, and those with lung infection have been treated. In the shadow of the mountain, Mae Sai is slowly going back to what it was—a sleepy farming village, a border trading post on the Thailand-Myanmar border and a stop on Asian Highway 2, which runs from Khosravi, Iran, to Denpasar, Indonesia.

In the next two days, SEALs supplied the kids with energy gels, medicines and foil blankets to help conserve body heat.
The Wild Boars had gone in to celebrate the birthday of one of them. They were carrying some food and drinks, a vital reserve that helped prolong their chance of survival.

But, Mae Sai will never be the same again. One cannot remain untouched, after having looked death in the face. One almost could grasp what poet Edward Thomas was trying to say in the opening lines of Rain: “Rain, midnight rain, nothing but the wild rain/ On this bleak hut, and solitude, and me/ Remembering again that I shall die/ And neither hear the rain nor give it thanks.” Rain. Solitude. Death. And, then, abundant life. That just about describes the 18-day drama in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave network in northern Thailand’s Chiang Rai province.

It all began when Nopparat Kanthavong, 37, head coach of the Moo Pa (Wild Boars) football team, raised the alarm on the night of June 23, a Saturday. He had an engagement during the day, and had left the training of the junior team to assistant coach Ekapol ‘Ek’ Chanthawong, 25. In the evening, the senior Wild Boars had a match, so coach Kanthavong switched off his phone. When he switched it back on, he found a string of missed calls from parents of junior players. The boys were missing and Ek could not be reached on the phone. As night fell, Kanthavong was running out of options.

His first break came when a junior team member (identified by some outlets as Songpol Kanthawong, 13) called saying that he could not go with the others to Tham Luang caves because his mother had picked him up after the training session. Kanthavong raced off to Tham Luang, and made his way up the slippery path to the cave mouth. What he saw confirmed his worst fears. Bicycles parked inside, with bags of football gear stacked next to them. And, water was running out of the cave mouth. Shaken, Kanthavong called out Ek’s name, and then ran downhill. The path was fast turning into liquid mud, and so it would remain in the days to come.

As the caves are situated in the Tham Luang-Khun Nam Nang Non forest reserve, Kanthavong reportedly alerted the local office of the department of national parks. Meanwhile, parents of the missing players kept vigil at the cave mouth. Throughout the night, the rain kept falling. On Sunday, June 24, national parks staff and the police searched the cave. Deep inside, they found footprints in the slush and handprints on the walls. The water had forced the boys inside, they concluded. Outside, the anxious families had set up shrines and begged the rain gods to stop the deluge. Inside, in some places, the water was rising fast; by some accounts, up to 15cm in a single hour. Realising that the situation was beyond them, the search party called in the defence forces.

The Royal Thai Navy sent in a party of SEALs who came back and reported that the cave was flooded. There was no headroom for them to surface. So, surely the boys had moved further inside. By Monday, June 25, a rudimentary command centre was established 2km into the cave. A power line was drawn; extractor fans and floodlights were running. By Tuesday, Thai divers reached close to a tight T-junction, also called Monk’s Junction, beyond which lay a big cavern named Pattaya Beach. But, water thundering out of the narrow opening forced the divers back. By now, pumps were running round the clock, and fat, orange hoses snaked out of the cave.

Around this time, Thailand-based British expat Vernon Unsworth was tipped off by a friend that divers were having a tough time “swimming through coffee”. With the permission of rescue commander Narongsak Osottanakorn, Unsworth contacted friends in the British Cave Rescue Council (BCRC). At that point, no one knew how providential that was to be.

Around 10,500km away, in Hawaii, Admiral Philip S. Davidson was putting together a team. The admiral heads the US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM), which has two direct reporting units who are answerable only to him or to the secretary of the army. One unit is the center for excellence in disaster management and humanitarian assistance (CFE-DM). Sources said the Pearl Harbour-based CFE-DM provided support to the 30 uniforms who flew to Chiang Rai on Wednesday, June 27.

Teams from BCRC and USINDOPACOM reached Mae Sai around the same time. The BCRC team comprised IT consultant John Volanthen, 47, and retired firefighter Rick Stanton, 56, both volunteers with the South and Mid Wales Cave Rescue Team based in Penwyllt, southern Wales. On the surface, the BCRC operation was coordinated by Robert Harper, 70, a veteran cave diver.

Taking stock: The helicopter belonging to the rescue team flies over the Doi Nang Non mountain range that houses the Tham Luang cave complex. Taking stock: The helicopter belonging to the rescue team flies over the Doi Nang Non mountain range that houses the Tham Luang cave complex.

As military personnel and divers struggled with rising water levels, parallel efforts were on outside. Everything was being tried, from high-tech options to old-fashioned ‘walking the grid’. Lines of climbers were up on the mountain, sweeping the terrain for fissures or chimneys that would give access from above. Through promising fissures, the police dropped waterproof packets containing food, water, torches, maps and first-aid kits. The packets also contained a watertight box with pens, paper and a note: Describe best where you are. Seal your note in this box and drop it in running water. The police were hoping that the mad current would wash the box out of the cave.

Thai media reported that by Thursday, June 28, PTT Exploration and Production, the state-owned oil and natural gas prospecting company, was mapping the mountain with camera-fitted drones and also those fitted with thermal-imaging devices. The company also released a sonar-fitted underwater drone into the labyrinth, to help map it. All these images were handed over to teams that were painstakingly piecing together the topography of the mountain and the caves.

Meanwhile, underground, pumps had lowered water levels, helping divers to progress further. The Thai army threw up dams on the surface to prevent run-off from entering the cave. Drill teams of the Thai Underground Water Department bored horizontal shafts into the mountain, to provide additional exits for the water.

Friday, June 29, marked the seventh day of the rescue effort. On that day, Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha visited the cave and met with the parents and the rescue team. He asked for hope, even as spirits were flagging. On Friday and Saturday, rescue teams tried extraction models in the caves, as engineers connected the forward base with a pulley system. Up the system came equipment, food and hundreds of oxygen canisters. Up on the surface, a royal kitchen was set up on the orders of King Maha Vajiralongkorn; palace staff cooked hot meals for divers and military personnel.

On Sunday, July 1, the BCRC team passed the tricky Monk’s Junction, reportedly 1.9km from where the boys were trapped. As advance teams moved further and further inward, the topography became clearer and support teams then set up caches of oxygen tanks at specific locations.

On Monday, June 2, Volanthen and Stanton reached ‘Pattaya Beach’. The rescue teams were hoping to find the children here, as the ledge in the cavern usually stays above floodwaters. But, there was nothing. The divers pushed on, and, half a kilometre later, found Ek and the boys. Footage from a body camera showed an unreal scene. The kids huddled on a ledge, some with football jerseys pulled over their knees to beat the cold. A chorus of thank yous greeted the divers. Then a voice, supposedly Volanthen’s: “How many of you? 13? Brilliant!”

The Wild Boars told the divers that they were hungry, asked what day it was and then wanted to know if they could go out with the divers. The divers reassured them that they would get out, but not today. Audio from the video: “No, not today. Just two of us. We have to dive. We are coming. It’s OK. Many people are coming. Many, many people. We are the first. Many people come.” The divers gave the boys torches and hope, and returned to the murky water.

In the next two days, SEALs supplied the kids with energy gels, medicines and foil blankets to help conserve body heat. A Navy doctor examined them and proclaimed them fit, except for light injuries. A static rope was laid from the command centre to the cave, and SEALs started staying with the boys in rotation. Unsuccessful efforts were made to lay an optic fibre line, to help the kids speak to their parents. Then, pen and paper was used. One note to the parents read: “Don’t worry. We are all fine. When we get out, we want to eat a lot of food. Once out of the cave, the first thing we want to do is to go home. Teachers please don’t give us too much homework.” Reportedly, a relay team of divers also delivered hot meals to the hungry children.

In a note, Ek apologised to the parents and promised to keep the kids safe to the best of his ability. Parents wrote back saying that they did not blame him and had complete faith in him. While all this was happening, discussions were on in the command centre about the best way to extract 12 kids who did not know to swim. One possibility considered was keeping them in the cavern for four months, until the waters receded. But, suddenly, rescuers took a call to conduct an immediate operation. Why?

Here is the story, through the elements:

Water

A hero, lost: A Royal Thai Navy soldier carries a portrait of Saman Kunan, who died during the rescue operation | AFP A hero, lost: A Royal Thai Navy soldier carries a portrait of Saman Kunan, who died during the rescue operation | AFP

What made the rescue possible is the water factor—stoppage of rains and pumping water out of the cave. General Bancha Duriyaphan, commander of the Chiang Rai-based 37th Military Circle, told the media on July 8 that he had asked the rain gods for a respite of three days. “I am not asking for more, because the gods might not grant me my wish,” he said. No one could predict if the Wild Boars’ ledge would remain above floodwaters for four months.

It came as a surprise when rescue commander Osotthanakorn said that unregistered volunteers who had joined the rescue mission had accidentally pumped water back into the cave. Perhaps, inexperienced, but well-intentioned, people could have delayed the rescue. Local sources told THE WEEK that these volunteers had connected the hoses to holes that they thought led underground and away from the cave. But, in reality, these holes were connected to the cave system. Eventually, this error was discovered, and the holes were plugged.

An official, who did not wish to be named, said that this could have led to journalists and general volunteers being moved to a government office closer to Mae Sai town. During the final push, the main site itself was cordoned off by security forces, and, on the last day, a journalist was arrested for flying a drone in the area. Osotthanakorn issued a general statement that no breach of the approved rescue blueprint should be made. All initiatives, he said, must be vetted for feasibility.

Interestingly, the water pumping effort received inputs from one of the world’s foremost experts in the field—the Dutch. The Netherlands-based Van Heck company flew in technicians, led by director Jeroen van Heck. The company specialises in manufacturing mega-pumps used to clear flooded mines. Last year, it tested a pump in Egypt by draining an Olympic size pool (25 lakh litres!) in 15 minutes.

In Tham Luang, Jeroen assessed the situation and said that large pumps were not the solution. He pitched for multiple smaller pumps. The strategy paid off. By Thursday, July 5, officials said that 40 per cent of the operational area had been dewatered. A Van Heck employee told the Leeuwarder Courant that Jeroen’s skill was more in finding creative drainage solutions than in simply turning on a pump.

In Bangkok, THE WEEK met Lawrence, a diving consultant who was in Mae Sai, who said that drainage had made all the difference, because the kids could walk out the last stretch of the cave, free from the fear of drowning. The water-free stretch also took pressure off the rescue divers. It would have been close to impossible to keep this high-stakes operation running for four months.

Earth

Helping hands: Volunteers preparing food. Helping hands: Volunteers preparing food.

The earth element has both surface and sub-surface elements. On the surface, the path to the cave mouth had turned into a running river of mud. Volunteers and rescue personnel were slipping and falling. Gumboots had become regulation gear for everyone, including journalists. As the monsoon progressed, access would have become progressively difficult.

Up on the mountain, those walking the grid did not have any promising leads. All sample holes sunk into the mountain had come up dry. Cameras were lowered into promising shafts, but nothing came out of it. Elon Musk had sent engineers of The Boring Company to explore the possibility of drilling down into the cave. Thai space entrepreneur James Yenbamroong had linked up with Musk, and liaisoned with the Thai government. Yenbamroong is founder and CEO of Mu Space. “For pumps, cave has narrowest 70cm cross section…. For vertical drill, it’s about 1/2 mile down and tricky,” @JamesWorldSpace had tweeted.

Now, sub-surface. The Tham Luang caves are karstic formations made of soluble rocks such as limestone, dolomite and gypsum. Karstic formations can be unstable, because the limestone reacts with the acid in rainwater. All the sinkholes, trenches and caves in these formations are caused by this reaction. So, cave-ins are an ever present threat. Collapses would depend on various factors like size of fissures, acidity of the water and the rate at which different formations dissolve. There is the same threat from below. If a void were to form under the boys, the result would have been equally catastrophic.

Air

While karstic formations let in water, they also let in air. But, compared with water, the rate at which air is replenished underground is slow. Navy SEAL chief Rear Admiral Aphakorn Yoo-kongkaew was reported as saying that oxygen levels in the cave where the boys were had dropped to 15 per cent. The rear admiral said that the option of waiting for four months was now off the table. “We can no longer wait for all conditions to be ready,” he said. This situation also forced the rescue commander to halve the number of SEALs in the cavern. For a while, there were 10 personnel with the boys, at all times.

There is also the unspoken threat of caver’s disease or histoplasmosis. A potentially fatal fungal infection that affects the lungs, histoplasmosis is usually associated with bat droppings. The possibility of the boys being infected is one reason why they have been quarantined currently.

The air situation became a palpable threat on Friday, July 6, when retired SEAL Saman Kunan died after having run out of air. He was replenishing oxygen tank caches in the cave. Sources said that the decision to bring out the boys was made after Dr Richard Harris, a South Australian anaesthetist and veteran diver, assessed the boys and agreed that the air quality was indeed dropping. Harris also made a priority list of evacuees and dived every day to be with the boys. Sadly, he emerged from the cave on Tuesday to learn that his father had died. His loss is one of the many personal sacrifices made by rescue volunteers in Tham Luang.

Final push

Into the light: An undated photo released by the Royal Thai Navy on July 11 shows a member of the Wild Boars team being moved on a stretcher during the rescue operation | AFP Into the light: An undated photo released by the Royal Thai Navy on July 11 shows a member of the Wild Boars team being moved on a stretcher during the rescue operation | AFP

Meteorological predictions for the week starting Sunday, July 8, looked hopeless. Rain was coming. Torrential rain. And, so, early in the morning, divers set off to bring the boys out. Shepherded by two divers, they came, hugging the guide line. At the tightest part, the divers released the tanks and helped their wards up. They walked through the last stretch. According to Derek Anderson, a rescue specialist with the US Air Force based in Okinawa, Japan, the boys were ziplined in some places. “We had to set up rope systems and high-lines to be able to safely put them in a harness and bring them across large open areas so they wouldn’t have to go all the way down,” he told the Associated Press. Four each came out on Sunday and Monday, and the final four and coach Ek on Tuesday. After being assessed at the field hospital, all 13 were moved to the Chiang Rai hospital, where an entire floor had been cleared for them.

Reportedly, some of the kids were sedated to help them cope with the underwater trip. The rescue commander, however, denied such reports. Unconfirmed reports also said that the boys were made to wear tinted glasses to help them adjust to sunlight after 18 days of eternal night.

The question on everybody’s mind is about how did the boys survive for 10 days, before the BCRC team found them. Local residents told THE WEEK that the Wild Boars had gone in to celebrate the birthday of one of them. They were carrying some food and drinks, a vital reserve that helped prolong their chance of survival. They drank water that dripped off the ceiling.

The FIFA World Cup will be over by the time the boys are released from quarantine. So, they cannot take up FIFA president Gianni Infantino on his offer to host them at the final. But, there is the offer from Manchester United, to host them at Old Trafford next season.

Outside the cave, trucks are rolling off with the pumps and mining gear. Crews are dismantling the mini town that had come up. Equipment worth millions of dollars have to be cleaned and returned to contributors worldwide.

Sleep well, sleeping lady. In divisive times, you brought out the best in mankind.

Musk’s mini-sub

Elon musk | Twitter @Elonmusk/Via Reuters Elon musk | Twitter @Elonmusk/Via Reuters

ELON MUSK, founder of SpaceX, landed at the flooded Tham Luang cave with a prototype mini-submarine on July 10. “Just returned from Cave 3 (the divers’ operating base 2km from the entrance of the cave),” he tweeted. “Mini-sub is ready if needed. It is made of rocket parts & named Wild Boar after the kids’ soccer team. Leaving here in case it may be useful in the future.”

Musk’s team started brainstorming over possible rescue options after a social media user asked Musk to help rescue the boys trapped inside the cave. Engineers from SpaceX and his The Boring Company were also sent to Thailand. The team’s initial ideas included an escape pod and an inflatable tube with airlocks. The mini-sub, said Musk, was “basically a tiny, kid-size submarine using the liquid oxygen transfer tube of Falcon rocket as hull”.

While rescue mission chief Narongsak Osottanakorn thanked Musk for his mini-sub offer, he said they couldn’t use it as it was not “practical” for their mission.

In the line of duty

HE RAN OUT of oxygen and died, but not before ensuring that the boys and the coach inside the flooded Tham Luang cave had enough oxygen tanks. On July 5, former Thai Navy SEAL petty officer Saman Kunan fell unconscious while on his way back to Chamber 3—the rescuers’ base inside the cave— after placing oxygen tanks along the narrow passages. His diving partner tried to revive him, but it was too late. His death highlighted the risk to the boys and the rescuers.

Kunan, 38, was an avid trail runner and cyclist, and had participated in triathlon events. “Even after he departed the SEAL unit, he still kept in touch and maintained a tie with the rest of his former colleagues,” read a statement from the Thai Navy SEAL. “He always participated in the SEAL activities until the last step of his life.”

Kunan’s body was flown to his home province, Roi Et. His wife, Waleeporn Kunan, told BBC, “If you ask me if I am sad, it’s like I have died but I am still alive. I use pride to repress my sadness. He has been praised as a hero because of who he was. He loved helping others, doing charity work and getting things done. So, I use pride to deal with my sorrow.”

In its tribute to Kunan, the Thai Navy SEAL appreciated his effort and determination, and said, “May you rest in peace and we will accomplish this mission as you had wished.” And, they sure did.

The trapped 13

Chanin Vibulrungruang, 11

Forward; youngest in the team

Panumas Sangdee, 13

“Big, but agile” as per the coach

Duganpet Promtep, 13

Captain; scouted by pro teams

Adul Sam-on, 14

Talked to the British divers in English

Somepong Jaiwong, 13

Aspires to play for the national team

Mongkol Booneiam, 12 or 13

Loves studies as much as football

Nattawut Takamrong, 14

I can take care of myself, he wrote to parents

Peerapat Sompiangjai, 17

Spent his birthday in the cave

Ekarat Wongsukchan, 14

Goalkeeper; promised to help mother at her shop

Prajak Sutham, 15

Described by family friends as “smart and quiet”

Pipat Pho, 15

Wanted to go for Thai barbecue, once out of the cave

Pornchai Kamluang, 16

Wrote to his parents he is happy

Ekapol Chanthawong, 25

Assistant coach