Sunday, July 15, 2018

“We still don’t know how it worked!” the Amazing Thai Cave Rescue

Zoë Sharp

Members of the Wild Boars soccer team
The story started on June 23 2018, when a group of 12 boys finished football (soccer) practice and went, with their assistant coach, into Tham Luang Nang Non, (which translates to ‘Great Cave of the Sleeping Lady’) a cave system in the Chiang Rai Province of northern Thailand, almost on the border with Myanmar.

The reason the boys, aged 11 to 17, from the Wild Boars junior association football team, decided to go into the cave isn’t clear—maybe for them it was the equivalent of a trip to Alton Towers. And it does look to be a natural wonder. A huge karstic cave system beneath the Doi Nang Nom mountain range.

The Doi Nang Nom mountain range, Thailand
Unfortunately for the boys, the monsoon rains arrived earlier than they expected. As the water levels inside the cave rose, the boys and their 25-year-old coach found themselves marooned on a small plateau almost two miles underground.

There they remained, undiscovered, for nine days.

What those nine days must have been like for the boys, I can only imagine. But they must, surely, have thought nobody was ever going to come, or even find out what had happened to them.

The fact they survived in such apparent good spirits despite oxygen levels running low and lack of food, has been credited in part to the presence of the young coach Ekaphol Chantawong, a former monk who encouraged them to rest and meditate to alleviate the boredom and stress. Sadly, I have a suspicion that once the euphoria of subsequent events has subsided and the media begins to look for a continuation of the story—ie, who to blame—this young man’s life may take a more unpleasant turn. Everybody loves a heroic figure, but the media seems to love nothing more than bringing such a hero figure to their knees.

Eventually, on July 02, the boys were discovered by a British cave diver, John Volanthen. By that time, cave rescue experts had been drafted in from all over the world to supplement the Thai Navy SEALs and local volunteers.

I regret that, in the early stages, the details of the story passed me by. I was getting ready for my trip to southern France, and the imminent launch of my new standalone, DANCING ON THE GRAVE. And, I confess, I was trying to tune out anything connected to the World Cup. The fact that the boys were collectively described as a football team in the news did not serve to make them register strongly in my mind. (I seem to remember that when I initially heard an entire football team had gone missing, I even thought they might one of the those entered in the World Cup who had disappeared while in Moscow.)

It wasn’t long before I was as hooked as everyone else and reading the regular updates on the excellent The Guardian website. And as more complications and difficulties emerged, the more hooked I became. It was a rollercoaster of highs and lows that gripped you by the throat and wouldn’t let go.

They found the boys alive—great. They were trapped two miles underground—oh no. The Thai authorities brought in heavy duty pumps and had shifted, by the end of things, more than one million cubic metres of water out of the cave system—amazing. More monsoon rains were forecast and some were predicting it might be months before the boys could be safely extracted—what?!

By July 05, after attempts failed to locate a point directly above the boys’ position in order to drill through 600 metres of rock to reach them, the only logical option was to bring them out underground. This would involve using scuba gear and air tanks for much of the first mile, which was extensively flooded despite the pumping crews’ best efforts.

None of the boys had ever scuba dived before, and there were doubts if a mask small enough could be found to fit the youngest boy and seal reliably throughout the journey. Plus, when they were found the boys had been surviving only on small amounts of water. They were in a weakened condition.

Elon Musk's solution was a mini submersible, but it's doubtful
that the craft would have made it through some of the
incredibly narrow passages inside the cave.
But, by now they’d been trapped for thirteen days. The oxygen levels inside the small pocket that contained them had fallen to 15 percent. Medical experts warned that at 12 percent, the boys would start to fall into coma. Still, it was a choice fraught with danger, as was tragically illustrated by the death of Saman Kunan, a former Thai Navy SEAL diver.

former Thai Navy SEAL diver, Saman Kunan, who died during the rescue operation
But they were fast running out of options. The monsoons were forecast to let rip at any moment. When heavy rains failed to materialise on July 07, as predicted, the authorities realised they had to make best use of what might be their only reprieve.

The resilience of the boys at this point was quite remarkable. It is reported that they were excited by the prospect of going diving as much as being rescued. The original plan was to bring the strongest out first, but Australian doctor Richard Harris who went in to assess their condition, found they were all equally fit. Eventually, the boys decided among themselves, with the coach making the final pick.

The first two boys were given a sedative as a precaution against panic, then and brought out tethered to two divers for much of the first part of the journey. At a dry area known as Pattaya Beach, they were loaded onto wraparound stretchers and taken the rest of the way, aided by a daisy chain of other supporters along the route until they finally reached the largely dry third chamber, which was the Forward Operating Base for the rescue attempt. From there, they were hooked up to a pulley system and guided through the cramped, muddy terrain by more than a hundred further rescue workers.

If this had been a staged event instead of an emergency response, it would have been years in the planning. The authorities had a couple of days to co-ordinate teams from all over the world. Fortunately, the hand-signal language of diving is much the same everywhere.

The divers involved admitted that it was only as the first boys were being ferried to hospital that they allowed themselves to believe they might be able to pull the whole thing off. Even so, the slightest problem would have seen the plan collapse and might, perhaps, leave some of the boys compelled to stay underground and wait out the monsoon season.

the boys are ferried to hospital as they are brought to the surface
Having managed their amazing feat of co-ordination and co-operation—not to mention skill and bravery—to bring out four of the boys on July 08, the divers then went back and did it all over again the following day. And again the day after that, successfully bringing out the entire team. The coach left himself until last.

Even after the last of the Wild Boars was safely out of the cave, it seemed that the Sleeping Lady had one last drama to throw at them. A water pipe burst and the main pump stopped working, causing the last of the rescue workers to run to escape the rapidly rising water. It will be months, they reckon, before they can return to retrieve their equipment.

the rescued Wild Boars recovering in hospital isolation
Hollywood, as you might expect, has already announced not one but two movies in the works about the event. It is hard to see how they can possibly make this remarkable example of human ingenuity and teamwork any more dramatic than it was in real life.

This week’s Word of the Week is karstic, meaning the topography in a region where the rock is soluble (such as limestone or dolomite) and over time forms sinkholes, caverns and underground streams and passages. Karst is thought to derive from a pre-Indo-European word, karra, meaning stone, or from the Latin carsus, stony ground.

an example of karstic topography in Madagascar

I am currently in the midst of a Blog Tour for my latest standalone crime thriller, DANCING ON THE GRAVE, which came out on July 01. The tour started out at ShotsMag Confidential on July 09, and will finish up at Sean's Book Reviews on July 22. It's a mix of guest articles and reviews, so I hope you'll join me somewhere along the way. Full details on my website here.


  1. In a world full of overpaid millionaires kicking a ball around a park, politicians with uncontrollable hair and bad economic news, I think it caught the feeling of the true humanity of mankind ( is that a tautology?). It was the watercooler talk many have got out now? How are they doing? A feel good story.

  2. Thanks, Caro. This story gave back a little bit of hope for us as a species, didn't it?

    And I voted we let 45 in (as I understand he's being referred to, by chronological number rather than name) but only if his hair went through quarantine.

  3. Thank you, Zoe!! Since I don't watch TV news, I relied on email bulletins from newspapers, including the Guardian and the daily NYTimes online. What I love most about this is the human response worldwide. Millions—maybe a billion!—rejoicing over the rescue of a very few, formerly completely unknown members of our species. There are the hardhearted among us, that’s for sure. But the caring hearts of true humanity shine through! Deep down, most of care--even about people we have never before heard of.

    1. Most of us with the exception of one strange billionaire, it would seem, who threw his toys out of his pram that they called the toy he offered as impractical, and then started some serious name-calling. The one person who would appear to come out of this situation with little humanity evident.

  4. I read somewhere that a pivotal cog in the rescue was a young boy - an illegal immigrant into Thailand - who speaks multiple languages, who served as translator between different people. What a great recounting of a heart-warming story, Zoë.

    1. I hadn't heard that, Stan, or I certainly would have included it. I hope they've offered him citizenship.

  5. I agree with everyone else. It's a terrific human story worthy of your compassionate telling. I also wish you great success with DANCING ON THE GRAVE, so much in fact that Hollywood comes knocking on your door--though I hope that sort of good wishes doesn't put me on karstic ground with you.

    1. Thanks, Jeff. And thank you for the kind words and good wishes for the new book. And nothing could put you on anything other than a rock solid footing with me, m'dear!

  6. Great retelling Zoë.

    My sister used to get karstic all the time, so she always got to ride in the front seat with our parents while I and my two brothers were relegated to the netherworld of the backseat. Hmm? What's that? Oh. Nevermind.

    1. lol, EvKa. Do you have a copy of the Uxbridge English Dictionary, put together of definitions from the Radio 4 show 'I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue' Sounds right up your street!