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Miraculous good fortune came into play to locate the missing members of a Thai soccer team, trapped with their coach deep underground. Then, as the world held its breath, it took extraordinary expertise and cooperation to extricate them. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Rescuing the Wild Boars

Part-timers found them. John and Rick. “Hobbyists,” they call themselves. An English IT consultant and a retired firefighter. The men are 47 and 57 years old, and yet are uniquely, almost brilliantly, athletic – they have sufficiently mastered their “hobby” as to break world records and receive their Queen’s honours for bravery.

In cave diving, John Volanthen and Rick Stanton are a world-class partnership. In 2004, they helped rescue six British soldiers from a flooded cave in Mexico. In 2010, the French government requested their skills for a rescue mission for caver Eric Establie. In that case, the pair could only retrieve his body. “Panic and adrenaline are great in certain circumstances – but not cave diving,” Volanthen told The Sunday Times in 2013. “What you want is nice and boring. Under water, things happen slowly. If a parachute fails on a base jump, you have seconds to contemplate your fate. If something goes wrong 10 kilometres down an underwater tunnel, you usually have until your air runs out to find a solution or make your peace.”

On July 2, 10 days after the Wild Boars soccer team became trapped within the flooding Tham Luang Nang Non cave, Rick and John found them, four kilometres from its mouth. Will and talent had taken them that far, but luck helped, too. The location of the boys and their coach wasn’t known – nor was their condition. In the cave divers’ minds, the boys and their coach could well be dead, lying anywhere within a bewilderingly dark and flooded network.

Having exhausted their length of guide rope, Rick and John surfaced. In the glare of their headlamps, they found the astonished faces of the Wild Boars huddled on a cavern’s ledge. Twelve boys, aged 11 to 16, and their coach, who was just 25. Had the divers’ line been just a few feet shorter, they might never have found them. But they did, and their camera recorded the moment:

“How many of you?”

“Thirteen.”

“Thirteen? Brilliant.”

“Can we go outside now?”

“No, not today. Many people are coming. We are the first.”

“What day is it?”

“Monday. You have been here 10 days. You are very strong.”

“Thank you so much.”

 

The Wild Boars soccer team is based in Mae Sai, very close to the intersection of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos known as the Golden Triangle and notorious for its drug production and guerilla warfare. Many of the boys had been encouraged across the Myanmar border into Thailand by parents desperate to distance their children from violence and poverty. Three of the trapped boys are stateless – there are upwards of three million stateless people in Thailand – but their plight quickly attracted the full attention of their government.

Their coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, is also stateless, an orphan who had joined a Buddhist monastery for a decade. The cave trek was not unusual – “Coach Ek” often took the boys on jungle hikes and expeditions. He became a mentor to the children. But on June 23, he fatefully ignored a sign warning of potential flooding in the Tham Luang Nang Non system. Monsoonal rains were forecast.

When the cave’s corridors began filling with water, the party was forced deeper and deeper into the complex. Eventually, they rested on a ledge in a partially flooded chamber. They remained there undiscovered for 10 days, food and oxygen becoming dangerously depleted.

Dry air contains 21 per cent oxygen – health standards recognise a percentage lower than 19.5 as deficient. When the boys were found, their chamber’s oxygen level was about 16 per cent. With little ventilation, the boys’ inhalations were lowering the finite quantity of oxygen, and their exhalations were dangerously increasing the level of carbon dioxide. Without sufficient oxygen, the mind becomes impaired – the symptom horrifically compounding the anxiety and despair one would experience naturally while trapped in a flooded chamber beneath the earth.

 

Retired army major Jonathan Sims was one of the soldiers rescued by Volanthen and Stanton in 2004. He told The Guardian this week that he had been thinking of the boys often, while reliving his own plight. How would mere boys cope with a crisis that had profoundly strained experienced soldiers? “It was absolutely soul-destroying,” he said. “That first sleepless night there were these booming, crashing sounds as the water flooded the cave passages even further. All through the night, we could hear the noises getting louder and louder. It made us feel nervous … The key thing is your mental state. If you start to panic, it’s a disaster.”

To help moderate the boys’ panic, Coach Ek taught them meditation. But his own mental state was afflicted by guilt. He blamed himself for leading the boys into the cave and, once they were discovered, he wrote a letter to the boys’ parents that was relayed to them by rescue divers. “To the parents of all the kids, right now the kids are all fine, the crew are taking good care,” he wrote. “I promise I will care for the kids as best as possible. I want to say thanks for all the support and I want to apologise to the parents.”

The boys themselves wrote letters: “The air is a little chilly but don’t worry,” said one. “Don’t forget to set up my birthday party!”

Despite wide criticism of the coach – and, initially at least, a police force that was still unsure of whether charges of negligence would be laid against him – the boys’ parents uniformly relayed their forgiveness and support to the coach via their own letters. “We want you to know that no parents are angry with you at all, so don’t you worry about that,” one parent wrote.

While letters were exchanged, and news of the rescue developments shared with the party, there was one bit of information kept from them: one diver, former Navy SEAL Saman Gunan, 38, had died. Gunan was one of about 80 former or current Thai Navy SEALs who comprised most of the dive team. Gunan’s mission had been to secure additional air tanks along the route, which he succeeded in doing. It was during his return that he ran out of oxygen himself. “If you ask me if I’m sad, it’s like I have died but am still alive, but use my pride to repress my sadness,” his wife told the BBC this week.

 

Initially, it was hoped that no diving would be required – a hole might be drilled down to them, and the party hoisted up. But the logistics were almost prohibitive. The giant boring equipment would have to be transported up a mountain of dense jungle, then deployed to drill down through almost a kilometre of solid rock. Difficult but not impossible – the problem was time. There probably was not sufficient oxygen to last the duration of the drilling. There was also the prospect of further rains and rising flood levels. Meanwhile, teams of people combed the jungle floor for an alternative entrance – a “chimney” – to the cave. In dense jungle, they were looking for what may have been a small and obscure hole.

Tech entrepreneur Elon Musk had his own ideas, and requested engineers at SpaceX and Tesla to design, build and test a “kid-size” submarine. “Some good feedback from cave experts in Thailand,” Musk tweeted on July 7. “Iterating with them on an escape pod design that might be safe enough to try. Also building an inflatable tube with airlocks. Less likely to work, given tricky contours, but great if it does.”

And the next day: “Got more great feedback from Thailand. Primary path is basically a tiny, kid-size submarine using the liquid oxygen transfer tube of Falcon rocket as hull. Light enough to be carried by 2 divers, small enough to get through narrow gaps. Extremely robust.”

This spirit of collegial cooperation seemed to sour, though, after the chief of the rescue mission politely declined to employ the craft. “Although his technology is good and sophisticated, it’s not practical for this mission,” Narongsak Osatanakorn said.

Musk was irritated. “The former Thai provincial governor (described inaccurately as ‘rescue chief’) is not the subject matter expert,” he tweeted. “That would be Dick Stanton, who co-led the dive rescue team … Moreover, based on extensive cave video review & discussion with several divers who know journey, SpaceX engineering is absolutely certain that mini-sub can do entire journey & demonstrate at any time.”

Musk left the sub behind.

An extraordinary array of expertise was brought to bear upon the rescue mission. In addition to specialist divers, medics and engineers, there were geologists, radar specialists and chefs volunteering their labour. Hydrologists installed giant pumps, which successfully withdrew large quantities of floodwater.

Then there was Adelaide anaesthetist Richard Harris – one of 20 Australian personnel sent to aid the mission. Harris was singularly qualified for the job – a medic with great diving experience. Joined by his dive partner, Perth vet Craig Challen, Harris assessed the boys in the chamber, determining an order of priority for their extraction.

Harris, Challen and other Australian divers spoke with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull via video after the mission. “Australia is so proud of you,” Turnbull told them. “Hey, doctor: thank you so much for your extraordinary work and we know it is a tough time for you at the moment so lots of love there.”

Harris turned the attention to the Navy SEALs and the rescued. “They are the toughest blokes and kids I have ever had the privilege to meet,” he said. “They are the ones who are responsible for their own morale and really their own safety and without them being in the state they were in we couldn’t have done anything so that is where all the credit really lies, I think.”

Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop said Harris was “an integral part” of the rescue. “He was specifically identified by the British diving team as an expert whose skills would be required and he was asked for at the highest levels within the Thai government, and fortunately was able to go to Chiang Rai and be part of the rescue. He is internationally renowned for his expertise in cave rescues.”

A short time after the rescue, the pumps failed and the caverns began quickly flooding. Then Harris was told that, back home, his father had died. “This is clearly a time of grief for the Harris family,” a colleague said in a statement, “magnified by the physical and emotional demands of being part of this week’s highly complex and ultimately successful rescue operation.”

 

There would be no immediate reunion for the boys and their families. Fearful of infections, Coach Ek, his boys and their rescuers were placed in quarantine. The boys’ parents would have to stare, astonished and profoundly grateful, at their children through a window. It had been 18 days since they went missing.

The boys variously presented with low heart rates, low body temperature, weight loss and pneumonia. They were given sunglasses, to help their eyes transition to light. Despite this, medics said the boys were recovering well. Naturally, they will be assessed by mental health experts, too. “This ordeal is likely to have a lasting impact on the boys, the coach and their families and loved ones,” Professor Ellen R. DeVoe, of Boston University, said this week. “How the boys and their coach recover and move forward will be influenced by a multitude of factors, including their physical health, the ability of their families and communities to respond to them in caring and sustaining ways and individual factors. It will also be important that the boys and their coach be protected from media and having to share their stories when they may not want to or may not be ready.

“Getting back into normal rituals will help the group move forward. It will also be important for families and loved ones to learn about the recovery process – what to look for in their children’s functioning that might signal distress and the need for formal care – and how to respond in nurturing and calming ways. As an example, we might expect this group to experience triggers related to being in the cave – such as being afraid of the dark, of water, of enclosed spaces and so on. Some of the team may develop longer-term distress, including depression or anxiety-related challenges, and/or post-traumatic stress adaptation. I would be especially concerned about the coach, who may blame himself for what happened and who may experience guilt and shame, even though he clearly was critical to the team’s survival.”

That duality is one of many in this story: Coach Ek both imperilled the boys and helped save them. An impoverished region, aloof from its government, received its sophisticated and unconditional support. Richard Harris, having helped save 13 lives, was almost immediately notified of death.

But we have also a brilliant precedent for cooperation and courage. “The rescue effort reminds me of something we’re in danger of forgetting: our natural default is cooperation,” Brigid Delaney wrote in Guardian Australia this week. “Even across cultures. Even across country and language barriers … It’s like a real-life manifestation of John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’ – for now. We’ll go back to the horrible news cycle soon enough. But for once, it’s lovely to imagine a brotherhood of man.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 14, 2018 as "Courage under mire". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.