The Daring Rescue that Saved the Thai Soccer Team

A group of the world's best cave divers joined to help save the 12 boys and their coach in one of the most dangerous missions of its kind

What saved the boys in the end was planning, and a whole lot of daring. (Royal Thai Navy/Associated Press)
thai soccer team

All 12 members of the Thai soccer team and their coach have been rescued and are in good health at a local hospital. They spent 18 days in the flooded Tham Luang Nang Non cave, nine of those without food. The rescue effort attracted diving experts from all over the world and even the attention of billionaire inventor Elon Musk, who dispatched his own engineering team that brought along a tiny submersible. But what saved the boys in the end was planning—and a whole lot of daring. 

The Wild Boars youth soccer team, all between 11 to 16 years old, had taken a field trip to the caves on June 23 and were trapped about two miles deep by flooding. The cave is typically closed from July to October during Thailand’s rainy season, and for rescue divers the possibility of being trapped in the cave during a violent downpour was one of the most omnipresent threats. (They also had to navigate cramped tunnels with zero visibility and the risk of running out of air.)

It was one of the most dangerous rescue efforts of its kind. Some sections of the cave narrow to just three feet wide and two feet tall, small enough to make it difficult for an adult to squeeze through, let alone an adult with full scuba gear and tank. New York Times reporter and former U.S. Navy diving officer John Ismay said cave diving of this type is so dangerous that the Navy does’t even feel it’s worth the risk to train recruits on. 

In a cave, gear can easily hang up on rocky outcrops. And since tanks connect to a regulator or mask with tubes, a diver could easily have his equipment jerked from his body. With practically zero visibility from the muck in the cave, it meant rescuers had to feel their way through two miles of winding tunnels. The conditions were difficult enough that former Thai Navy SEAL diver and rescue volunteer Saman Gunan ran out of air and died while dropping resupply tanks along the route on July 6. Beyond the peril of the cave itself, the boys didn’t know how to swim, and had never dived before. It meant rescuers also had to worry about how they’d get the potentially panicky kids out safely and without endangering themselves further. 

An international team of expert cave divers had all rushed to help, and for days they plotted how to extract the kids. Elon Musk even sent a crew of engineers and a “kid-size submarine.” The head of the rescue effort and former governor of the Chiang Rai province, where the cave is located, ended up thanking Musk for his help, but said the tiny submersible was “not practical for the mission.” 

Instead, rescuers strung a rope from the entrance of the cave to where the boys and their coach waited. The dive team was headed by two of the world’s leading cave divers, both British, and who were the first to initially make contact with the boys on July 2. After that, divers brought food and water to the boys, not knowing how long it would take to extricate everyone. Since rains were expected to return, and with the rising water in the cave, they needed to act quickly. On July 8, a team of 18 divers entered the cave. One at a time, each boy was accompanied by two divers and connected by a thin line. Rescuers fit the with full-face diving mask and the lead diver carried the boys’ oxygen tanks in front of them to squeeze through the narrow rock walls and to prevent them from ripping out their own air tubes. By Sunday, four of the boys were safely brought out of the cave. And by Monday all were safely out, including the coach.

The team was taken to the hospital, where two of the boys were said to have minor lung infections. But besides low white blood cell counts and some serious hunger pangs, they were all said to be in good health. By Monday evening, The Washington Post reported that the kids were laughing and joking.

Filed To: Asia / Kids / Thailand / SCUBA Diving
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