While the world was going crazy over the various upsets of the Fifa World Cup 2018, a different scene was taking place in Thailand.
In the Tham Lang caves, to be exact.
A desperate rescue was mounted to save a football team and their assistant coach, trapped in the caves.
They walked into the caves, but could not escape when water rose rapidly due to heavy rains.
But yesterday, on 8 July 2018, the world seemed to cheer when 4 boys were finally, finally, brought out of the cave.
Here are 10 facts about the entire rescue operation which will, at times, make your heart go badok-badok, freeze and erupt into jubilation.
1. How it all happened
Before we get into the latest updates, here’s a short recap of the entire incident, for the benefit of those who are not following the entire incident until now.
On 23 June, a 25-year-old assistant coach and 12 boys from his football team, aged between 11 and 16, entered the Tham Lang caves in heavy rains.
The cave got flooded and the group was trapped 4 km away from the cave entrance.
The news of a group who went missing in the Tham Lang caves only became known after a mother reported her son missing.
2. The missing boys were found after 9 days of searching
On 24 June, after park officials and police officers found belongings and handprints they believed to belong to the missing team, a search-and-rescue mission was launched at the Tham Lang caves.
Thailand Navy SEALS entered the cave on 25 June but was pushed back by flood waters on 26 June. They were joined by more than 30 military personnel from the US Pacific Command the next day.
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Three British diving experts also joined in the search.
On 1 Jul, the divers managed to inch their way forward and set up a forward operating base within the caves.
And finally, on 2 Jul, two British divers managed to find the missing boys and their assistant coach.
3. But that’s not the end of the story
While cheers broke out at the miraculous find of the two British divers, that’s not the end of the story.
Like what the British divers told the kids who asked if they’d be rescued today: “No, not today. But more people are coming.”
Because the search-and-rescue didn’t just end with finding the team. Like the authorities said, the work has just started.
The divers described how they got to Pattaya beach, the place where the boys are trapped.
They had to swim against the current, and the actual diving section was around 1.5 km long.
And the rescue team was faced with several options, none of which were incredibly attractive.
4. The assistant coach
Former monk and current assistant coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, is currently in the spotlight.
On one hand, he was blamed for bringing the boys into the cave during the monsoon season, especially when signs at the entrance warn people against doing that.
On the other hand, he is probably one of the factors behind the boys surviving the 9-day hell of being trapped in a dark place.
Rescuers described Ekapol as one of the weakest and believed that he had given the kids his share of the food and drink from their limited supply.
In addition, he also taught the kids how to meditate and conserve energy until they are found by rescuers.
In a note that he penned to the outside world, he apologised for his judgement and promised that every single boy under his care would be safely rescued from the cave.
Parents, meanwhile, are simply thankful that he is there with their kids and showed their support for him.
5. The rescue options were bad, or worse.
Before we take a look at the various rescue options that were available, here’s a bit of context.
The team had walked into the caves and got trapped by the flood waters due to the heavy rain. Right now, Thailand is experiencing the monsoon season, which means more heavy rains are expected.
The rescue team were pumping water out of the cave system, enough to fill about 52 Olympic-size swimming pools, but it wasn’t enough for the team to walk out.
So here are the rescue options of the team:
- Draining The Water: Drain enough water out until the team can walk out. The only problem with this was that monsoon rains are expected to arrive in the coming days, which might put more water into the cave than what is being drained out.
- Drill an escape shaft: Another solution is what was done at the Chilean mine rescue, where they drill a hole from the top to rescue trapped workers. The problem with is that the group is estimated to be 800m to a kilometre below the surface. And that there’s a risk of the cave collapsing.
- Wait-and-see: One of the safest ways was to just wait for the rains to stop and the water levels to dip. The only problem with that was that it could take several months, and conditions within the cave could change. Access could be blocked and oxygen levels within the cave could worsen.
- Dive Out: And the last is to train the kids and assistant coach to dive and bring them out. Except that the water is dark and muddy, and the rescuees might panic and die during the journey.
As you can see, none of the options seemed attractive.
6. And finally, the rescuers decided on the most dangerous way
Ultimately, at the end of the day, the rescue team decided to go with the last option. Which is also the most dangerous way.
Even experienced divers needed 7 hours to make a round trip from where the boys were trapped to the command centre set up within the cave.
Plus, the kids have to dive as deep as 400m in dark, muddy waters and pass through cramped places like this.
And in conditions that only a fraction of the world’s divers are certified to deal with. But based on the current conditions, it was deemed the best option.
7. A well-trained former thai Navy SEALs diver died
To highlight the difficulty of the journey, a former Thai Navy SEAL diver died during the rescue mission.
He was supplying oxygen tanks along the route to the entrance and ran out of oxygen himself.
His buddy brought him back and tried to save him, to no avail. His unfortunate death also showed that even in chambers above the water, there isn’t any air pockets for the boys.
Which means they’d have to depend on the oxygen from their navy guides’ tanks for a longer period of time than expected.
The rescue mission started after 24-hours of rain in Northern Chiang Mai.
8. A change of the rescue plan
Initially, it was decided that the strongest people in the cave were to be brought out first.
But after a doctor’s triage of the 12 kids in the cave, the plan was reversed and it was decided that the weakest kids are to be brought out first.
Each kid will be given wetsuits, boots and helmets as well as a scuba mask. They will likely be provided oxygen from the navy diver’s supply and an 8mm rope will be used to guide the boys out.
Oxygen tanks were placed along the cave system for extra oxygen if the boys require them.
9. D-Day rescue mission starts.
At 10 am on 8 July 2018, 13 foreign divers and 5 Thai Navy SEALs entered the cave for the rescue mission.
The most dangerous point of the mission is known as the T-Junction, 1.9km away from where the boys were sheltering at.
Imagine, after navigating turns, curves and twists for 1.9km, they now have to pass through this narrow space in dark, muddy water.
very dangerous Thai cave rescue begins, this is the narrowest part of the cave. pic.twitter.com/Bzwk1dzi6U
— #Thinker 🌀 (@areta) July 8, 2018
At 6.40 pm (Singapore time), the first two survivors were brought out of the cave. And by 8.50 pm, four boys were successfully rescued and sent to the hospital.
The remaining 8 boys and the assistant coach had to wait for about 10 hours until the next rescue attempt is mounted.
All the oxygen tanks placed along the route were depleted and had to be refilled before another rescue can be attempted again.
10. The danger isn’t over yet for the remaining survivors
When you look at the rescue attempt, you’d probably be thinking, wah, heng, it’s doable. The worst is over.
Nope, not true.
The conditions over the past 24 hours seemed pretty dire.
Weather forecasts predict that there is a 60 percent chance of heavy rain from Monday to Thursday, which will flood the caves all over again and push back the later rescue attempts.
Plus, with rescuers travelling to and from where the group is trapped, there is a risk of diminishing oxygen and a build up of carbon dioxide within the cave.
The entire rescue operation is expected to take 3 to 4 days, pending weather conditions.
And meanwhile, the entire world is holding its breath for the 9 remaining survivors still trapped on the ledge.
And the rescue team who are basically running against the clock.
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