Diving back in: The Tham Luang cave rescue two years on
In July 2018, the world's attention was gripped by the plight of 12 plucky young boys and their football coach trapped in a cave in Thailand. Two years on, the rescue team that saved the 'Wild Boars' recount the events of that day
By Alexi Demetriadi
Thailand celebrated one of sport’s greatest upsets in 2016, as football team Leicester City, owned by late-Thai billionaire Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, beat odds of 5,000-1 to claim the English Premier League title. The country didn’t expect to be celebrating another miracle so soon after – although, it wasn’t Leicester lifting another trophy, but one of the most ambitious and daring cave rescue missions in history.
On July 10, 2018, a football team of young Thai and stateless boys, along with their coach, were pulled out of Tham Luang cave. Trapped for almost three weeks in complete darkness over 2km into the cave situated in Thailand’s northern Chiang Rai province, the ‘Wild Boars’ were rescued by a huge local and international operation.
As the final rescue diver and Wild Boar emerged from the flooded cave, spectators had witnessed one of the great comebacks. Made up of 12 local boys ranging from 11 to 17 years old and their former monk coach, the Wild Boars had global supporters in the millions in a story that, perhaps surprisingly, captured the imagination of people across the world.
The team were celebrating a birthday with a day out when they became trapped in the flooded Tham Luang cave after a sudden downpour during monsoon season. The rescue operation was immense in size and ground-breaking in its execution. Thousands of Thai volunteers made up the bulk of the ground operation at the site, the Royal Thai Navy SEALs played an important role both inside and outside the cave while supplies and gear were donated from across the region.
It was international in its effort, too, with a group of Western cave divers who both found and rescued the boys. Reflecting back on their experiences during those weeks in July 2018, the rescue divers told the Globe of the difficulties they faced at Tham Luang, the intricacy of the rescue, and just how the Wild Boars were saved.
“At the time, no one was actually calling us,” remembered Vsevolod Korobov, a cave diver who runs ACDC Diving in Phuket. “But I asked around to see if any of the other divers were going up to help – and there were a few guys already there.”
Originally from Kharkiv, Ukraine, Korobov has been diving for almost 20 years. As news of the trapped boys began to surface, Korobov knew it would require experienced cave divers. “At first, people were diving with equipment not suited for a cave dive,” he told the Globe. For cave diving, it’s important to have two independent oxygen sources in case one fails, as well as a light source and ropes.
“It was actually dangerous to dive in the caves with such equipment.”
Ben Reymenants, a Belgian diver and owner of Blue Label Diving in Phuket was part of the search dive team along with Korobov. “The [Thai Navy] SEALs had tried to go in with not much cave experience and only a single tank,” he said. “I’m a cave instructor, I do this for a living, and this was really daunting.”
Along with the divers from the British Cave Rescue Council (BCRC), Korobov and Reymenants were some of the first divers to offer their help at Tham Luang, trying to find the boys in a myriad of tunnels and darkness.
“I thought we could go and help with our equipment and experience,” said Korobov, who arrived at Tham Luang on June 29. “Ben [Reymenants] was already there diving and we waited for him to resurface so we could get the details of the cave.”
The problem we had was the amount of rain that was coming down, making the water rise and flow extremely fast
The initial search dive was a shot in the dark. “At that stage, we didn’t know whether they were alive or not and there was just speculation that they were actually at the part of the cave called Pattaya Beach,” said Reymenants. “The cave didn’t have a proper map – there was one from 30 years ago, but it had no details about the depth or width of the cave.”
As the days and dives wore on, it became clear that it would take both planning and luck to locate the boys. “Navigational-wise, it wasn’t too complex a cave,” said Korobov. “The problem we had was the amount of rain that was coming down, making the water rise and flow extremely fast.”
The fast-running water was made no simpler by the lack of visibility, remembered Korobov. “One dive, we were part of a team of five,” he said. “After a while, we looked around and realised there were only three of us! The other two had been forced to terminate their dives because of the conditions.”
Reymenants was part of a search diving team, working in tandem with British divers John Volanthen and Richard Stanton, who would end up finding the boys on the ninth day of searching. “In a normal cave dive, you’d never dive in conditions like we had,” he explained. “No line, no map – we later found out that there was a lot of CO2 in the room, which was making it even harder to cross the dry passages and hauling all the diving gear with us.”
A large amount of equipment was also required. “I found out after that a huge number of people donated equipment,” said Reymenants. “We needed climbing rope, and the next morning, 4km of it had arrived.”
King Maha Vajiralongkorn and the royal palace were also donating. “Almost 1,000 scuba cylinders were flown in one day by military helicopter – paid for by the King – which he never took credit for,” said Reymenants. “A manufacturer we work with also called me and said – ‘someone working for the King has just called me, and wants to order all these cave harnesses?’ The number was from Germany, where the King lives.”
As the search mission wore on, the Wild Boars had still not been found. Search teams would dive around the clock, in tandem, to try and find them. “The British team would dive while we slept, we would then wake up and dive while they slept,” explained Reymenants.
The round-the-clock diving was starting to pay dividends after a dropped light led Reymenants to the discovery of the ‘T-Junction’ passage towards Pattaya Beach. “We found swimming aids – Hello Kitty ones – and we thought we had to be close,” remembered Reymenants. “I then saw a light on the surface of the water and shouted – ‘Hello?’ It was just my dive buddy… ‘It’s me, you idiot’.”
It wouldn’t be long after that Volanthen and Stanton would make the discovery that would beam around the world. “We were heading out as they jumped in to do their dive,” said Reymenants. “And then three hours later, you have one of the most famous videos you’ll ever see.”
As the days went by, it became more apparent that the cave diving option was the only option
The video had been uploaded online at Chamber Three of the cave, a 90-minute walk away from the entrance, so by the time Volanthen and Stanton were out – the video had gone viral. “We were just so happy to see the boys alive and in a good condition,” said Korobov. “I was surprised that after nine days they were so well – we were impressed.”
But the elation from the search mission soon gave way to fear and uncertainty. The search mission was difficult, but rescuing 13 boys with no dive experience, through more than 2km of tunnels, was near-impossible.
It would be in Western Australia, 5,000km away from Tham Luang cave, where the first plates of the rescue mission began to shift into place.
“Richard Harris and I developed an interest in cave rescue, not least because we thought that it might be us who needed to be rescued at some stage,” Craig Challen told the Globe. “We never really thought we’d get called upon to do it in real life and that it would lead us to the events in Thailand.”
Harris and Challen – friends, dive partners and now joint recipients of Australian of the Year in 2019 for their work during the Tham Luang rescue mission – were part of the six-diver group that orchestrated the rescue.
Former-veterinary practitioner Challen and anaesthetist Harris were at home in Perth, following the news and talking to the divers who had made contact with the boys. Different ideas as to how to get the boys out were floated, but one option became the most likely.
“As the days went by, it became more apparent that the cave diving option was the only option,” explained Challen.
Successful cave dive rescue missions, however, are rare and difficult. That, coupled with the fact it was 12 boys who had never dived before, meant that if the Tham Luang rescue was to be a success – it wouldn’t just have to rip up the rule book, it would have to create a new one from scratch.
“It didn’t seem possible at the time to achieve a rescue dive like that,” admitted Challen. “How were we going to train the boys and get them out? But, all those things me and Richard had learnt over the years – it was finally time to put it into practice.”
At the request of the Thai authorities, on the advice of divers from the BCRC, Harris and Challen were called out to help the rescue. After arriving at the complex on Friday, July 6, preparation to evacuate the boys ramped up. “By the time we’d arrived, we had a plan roughed out,” said Challen. “But there were a lot of varying views on whether it was possible or not.”
The idea that bore most contention was the plan to anaesthetise the boys and the coach, rendering them unconscious for the duration of the dive, so as not to panic and put the rescue divers at risk.
“The anaesthetic was a late addition and something we’d never envisioned, nor thought possible – it seemed like a ridiculous idea,” said Challen. “Anesthetising children and dunking their heads underwater is not something you normally do … to say it was dangerous was an understatement.”
Harris, a trained anaesthetist, would give each boy two intramuscular injections in the thigh: Ketamine to put them to sleep, and Atropine to suppress saliva production, to prevent choking.
Challen admits that he was initially unconvinced by the idea, but believed that they had to try something, however audacious. “We had heard reports that the rain was planning to come down again very soon,” remembered Challen. “So, the thing that reassured me was that, if we didn’t try this, those boys would have died in that cave.”Ivan Karadzic, owner of Koh Tao Tec Divers, was also part of the rescue and remembers the extent of the ground operation leading up to July 8, when the first boys would be brought out. “My first impression was chaos,” he said. “But then, I realised it was a bit like looking at an ant’s nest. When you looked closer you saw that everyone had a mission and there was a plan.”
Karadzic, who heralds from Denmark, was situated at Chamber Six during the three-days of rescue dives – swapping gear, checking the equipment and acting as one of the first ‘pit-stops’ that the boys would have along their 2km journey out. “I think many of us expected this not to be a rescue mission, but a recovery dive,” said Karadzic.
It was decided that the boys would be brought out intermittently with Harris administrating the anaesthetic, four BCRC divers swimming the boys out – one boy per two divers – with Challen at Chamber Eight, administrating the second dose of anaesthetic. Divers would also be positioned along the journey. The British divers swimming the unconscious boys out would follow a rope through the flooded tunnels, with the boy attached with a rope and harness. One of the divers would also carry the boy’s oxygen tank.
“My job was at Chamber Six, helping the divers when they surfaced with the kids,” explained Karadzic. His team was waiting for an hour when the first boy surfaced. “It was like being in autopilot – checking everything was alright and then sending them on and waiting for the next one,” Karadzic said. “Obviously, when the next couple came, the first question from the divers were – ‘how was the last boy?’”
If someone had given you a script about this story, you would look at it and go – ‘nah, this is way too far-fetched‘
Challen explained that the rescue teams at the furthest depths of the caves on the first day had no idea if the plan had been successful. “On the way out, after 10 hours in that cave, you haven’t got much else to think about other than how’s it gone,” explained Challen. “We got to Chamber Three and I can remember sticking my head out of the water and asking how the boys were. When they said it had been a success, a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders.”
The rescue operation got slicker and the dives quicker as the days progressed. It was late on the third day of the rescue, July 10, that the seemingly impossible had been achieved – all 13 members of the Wild Boars football team had been rescued from Tham Luang cave alive. In what had seemed a lost cause, the final boy emerging from the cave signified the end of their ordeal and one of the most daring rescue missions in history drew to a close. “I can tell you that a lot of beer was drunk that night,” said Challen. “History shows beer to be a pretty effective debrief…”
Challen explained that the enormity of the story wasn’t at first clear. “It was completely beyond us that it had captured the world’s attention until we got back to Australia,” said Challen. “If someone had given you a script about this story, you would look at it and go – ‘nah, this is way too far-fetched’.”
The divers who volunteered to take part all received the recognition they deserved, in what was a true international effort. All, however, stressed the importance of the volunteer effort. “The Thai Navy SEALs and the Thai volunteers didn’t get enough credit,” said Reymenants. “10,000 people volunteering is a huge amount and for two weeks you had people cooking, cleaning bathrooms and without them, the operation would have looked very different.”
While the rescue was more successful than anyone could have envisioned, it wasn’t without its casualties. Former-Thai Navy SEAL Saman Gunan lost consciousness on his way out of the Tham Luang cave, where he had been delivering air tanks. A memorial statue has been erected in his honour at Tham Luang-Khun Nam Nang Non Forest Park. Thai Navy SEAL Bierut Pakbara also passed away in late-2019 of complications from an infection picked up while working on the Tham Luang rescue mission.
The three weeks in July constituted gripping and heartening events, and to all of those trying to rescue the boys, being kilometres into a flooded cave didn’t offer the ideal environment in which to reflect. But two years on, when asked why the Wild Boars captured the world’s attention and hearts, the divers had their theories.
“Every mother that has a little boy would have been able to relate to those parents of the Wild Boars,” said Reymenants. “People think, ‘what if that was my little boy?’ These boys had gone off together for a trip and somehow got caught up in all this.”
Karadzic noted the climate at the time revolving around immigrants and stateless people, especially children. Four of the Wild Boars, including the coach, were stateless, belonging to ethnic groups that have traditionally lived across Thai, Myanmar, Lao, and Chinese borders. After their ordeal, the Thai government granted them citizenship.
Karadzic contrasted the response of the Thai government to the then actions of US president Donald Trump. “You have these kids who, without fault, find themselves in this nightmarish situation,” said Karadzic. “And a few of those kids were stateless. So, at the time, you had the president of the US putting kids into detention centres. Then you had Thailand – a semi-democracy at the time – utilising every single resource it had, to save these kids.”