Tham Luang : The saga of the 13 offside rescue

THAM LUANG

The saga of the 13 offside rescue

Catherine Vanesse

3 August 2018

After 18 days imprisoned in the darkness of a flooded cavern, twelve young soccer players and their coach made it out safely from Tham Luang cave through an extraordinary rescue operation.

Since the news of the team’s disappearance, the saga of the 13 “Wild Boars” gripped the attention of Thai authorities, the world media, and the local population.

“We made possible an impossible mission,” commented Narongsak Osottanakorn, the leader of the rescue mission at a press conference following the announcement of the evacuation of the final survivors, with applause and cheers from the journalists and volunteers present at the press zone at Pong Pha in the Mae Sai District, Chiang Rai province.

“Once we finally got them all out, we couldn’t believe that it all went off so well and that they’re all safe,” said Claus Rasmussen, a Danish cave diving instructor based in Phuket.

On June 23, 2018, twelve children aged eleven through sixteen and their soccer coach, aged 25, went into Tham Luang Nang Non cave. The sudden rise of the water of an underground river forced the group to go deeper into the cavern until they found themselves trapped four kilometers from the entrance. That evening, the alarm was sounded and the research operations started.

Right away, the media reported the disappearance of the 13 hikers, and volunteers came flocking, offering food, massages, and even haircuts! But also, there were divers who came from all over the world to help and join the rescue effort on site.

“From the beginning, I watched the story on the television. I work and teach cave diving, so I naturally thought I could go and help. We arrived on June 26,” says Claus Rasmussen.

“I manage a cave diving club in Rawai (editor’s note: Blue Label Diving), and we specialize in exploring caves in Thailand, so we had lots of equipment suited for this activity. When I was contacted, I came right away,” says Belgian Ben Reymenants.

Every day that passed kicked up the anxiety a notch. In a country that peacefully mixes Theravada Buddhism and animist beliefs, mass offerings were given to try and calm the spirit that is supposed to live in the cave.

A legend says that Princess Nang Non killed herself after her father, King Chiang Rung, executed her lover, a commoner who “raised horses.”

The Nang Non mountain chain covering the cave represents the reclined body of the inconsolable princess.

On June 30, the monk Kruba Boonchoom, who is famous in the kingdom for his predictions, announced that the children would be found within two days.

A Race Against the Clock

Meanwhile, on site, working two-by-two, Ben Reymenants and Maksym Polejaka, plus two British divers Richard Stanton and John Volanthen, members of the British Cave Rescue Council, set off to explore the cave and set up the cords that would be used to find their way back so they could navigate the narrow, muddy passages of Tham Luang.

On July 2, Richard Stanton and John Volanthen finally found the missing group atop a pile of rubble. The video of the first words spoken between the divers and the victims would be seen around the world: “They’re alive! We’re going to get them out!”

© Stephff
© Stephff
© Stephff

But after the jubilation, the reality of the situation quickly took hold in terms of practical matters: how could this be done?

“It seemed to be an impossible mission, one that was dangerous for the children as well as the rescuers,” said Claud Rasmussen.

“I personally had no hope. There was the lack of visibility, the strength of the current, and so on, but over the next few days, conditions (editor’s note: weather conditions and because they used pumps to drain the water) improved, and we started saying that things were becoming feasible. In the end, the Thais were more optimistic than we were,” added Ben Reymenants.

Then, several options were considered. First, there was talk of waiting until the end of the monsoon season and sending in supplies so they could survive for four months.

But no one knew how high the water could rise in the cave or if the place they were stuck would be safe from further flooding. The external part of the mountain was carefully studied, and about a hundred drillings were done to try to find a path to reach the children and their coach, but without success.

The only solution left was to get them out the way they came in, except the cave was still mostly flooded, most of the children couldn’t swim, and the conditions were, according to Claus Rasmussen, equivalent to “swimming in a Thermos of coffee.”

As a sad consequence of the dangerous operations, a rescuer lost his life on July 6. Saman Kunan, a former 1st-class Thai Navy SEAL volunteered for the rescue. The children were not informed of his death while they remained in the cave.

Mission Impossible

This turn of events quieted the atmosphere and raised concerns about the actual feasibility of the plans to get them out, especially given the difficulty of certain passageways only 70 centimeters wide, where a diver couldn’t fit with a tank on his back.

On July 8, at dawn, the journalists, camera operators, photographers, and anyone not directly involved in the rescue operation were asked to leave the Tham Luang area. A few hours later, Narongsak Osottanakorn, the leader of the rescue mission, made an announcement that would blow up on social media and warm the hearts of the families, observers, and volunteers who had been wading in the mud for several days: “Today is D-day. The boys are prepared to take on any challenge. All the conditions have been met to start the operations.”

© Ben Reymenants
© Ben Reymenants

For days, rescuers wondered about even starting the dangerous evacuation operation, but the looming monsoon rains would ruin any ongoing effort to drain water from the cave, so the decision was made.

“I stayed outside during the three days of evacuating the victims managing all technical matters. On the first day, we were really stressed, especially because we weren’t getting much information, so when we found out that the first two boys were out, it was an immense relief,” said Ben Reymenants.

At the end of the first day, four children had already been evacuated when operations were halted for the night.

For the evacuation, thirteen foreign and five Thai divers were deployed so that every child was accompanied by two divers. Time was planned for rest and to regularly resupply the oxygen bottles in the cave, which was done at night by Marine officers.

A list for the order of the evacuations was made by the authorities. “Actually, the children and their coach had made their own list, and they refused the one from the authorities,” said the Belgian diver. “The children were placed on stretchers and wore masks that completely covered their face. The accompanying divers carried the children’s oxygen tanks. Through meditation, tranquilizers, and oxygen, the children were mostly unconscious during the rescue itself, which was rather a good thing, so they wouldn’t panic. A few days earlier, the stretchers and masks had been tested on children in a swimming pool in Chiang Rai,” says Ben Reymenants.

On the second day, four other members of the Wild Boars soccer team were evacuated to the hospital in Chiang Rai.

© Chiang Rai Public Relation Office
© Chiang Rai Public Relation Office
© Chiang Rai Public Relation Office

Feelings of relief were slow to come, and finally, on Tuesday, July 10, at around 7 in the evening, the full joy of the event could finally be felt. With each passage of ambulances or helicopters, applause from the locals, the volunteers, and journalists could be heard along the road.

“It was as if they were my own children finally coming home,” said a volunteer, who for several days, served as an interpreter for the journalists.

“These children were really unlucky. They were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and the rain took them by surprise. But they had the luck to survive, to be found, and to get out safely,” said Claus Rasmussen.

“We’re not sure if it’s a miracle, science, or something else,” said the Thai Navy SEAL Company on its Facebook page.

Although the operation ended up to be a success, it also highlighted the risks of exploring certain places. The leader of the rescue mission Narongsak Osottanakorn insisted that this drama would serve as an example so it would never happen again, in Thailand or elsewhere.

“There isn’t much else to do except educate people about the danger,” added Claus Rasmussen. To do so, Tham Luang Nang Non should soon be setting up a museum to tell the story of the odyssey in detail.

© Ben Reymenants
© Catherine Vanesse
© Catherine Vanesse

Exceptional Solidarity

For 18 days, the saga of the 13 reportedly involved 90 divers, hundreds of rescue workers, more than 1,000 volunteers and as many journalists. According to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, individual initiatives, experts, and companies from 31 countries helped out or offered help during the rescue operations.

On the sidelines of the faces of the cave divers who have since become public, the adventure also mobilized many other people.

“An entire village formed around the cave, between the rescuers and the volunteers. It was incredible seeing what all these volunteers did,” said Ben Reymenants.

From the edge of the cave to the press zone, day after day, dozens of people cooked, cleaned the divers’ equipment, served as translators to help the foreign journalists, and day after day, people gave selflessly to each help to bring the Wild Boars home.

Another miracle?

More unexpectedly, the story also highlighted the vulnerable situation of certain inhabitants of Thailand. Out of the 13 survivors, four turned out to be stateless, i.e., with no birth certificate, identification, or passport. In fact, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees, there may be as many as 400,000 stateless persons in Thailand. Other sources even estimate their number at 3.5 million! Mostly fleeing from Myanmar, where an ethnic war rages, they have ended up in a very complex situation to assert their rights. In Thailand, they cannot marry or hold a bank account, the job market is mostly off limits to them, nor can they travel.

For nearly three weeks, spotlights and cameras from all over the world were focused on Mae Sai, uniting the entire Thai population around the misadventure, and raising tremendous emotions from all corners of the world. We can hope that this exposure will also raise awareness about the problem of stateless persons, that the three boys and their coach, none of whom are documented, can start their administrative processes, as well as those of the other stateless persons in Thailand.

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