The Thai Cave Rescue: Humanity Shines Through

?How Many Disasters Do We Need To Unite Humanity

For 18 days, millions of people across the world went on an emotional rollercoaster as they followed developments on the Thai Cave Rescue: worried about the junior soccer team (The Wild Boars) who went missing. Triumphant when they were found alive after 9 days, anxious about the rescue operation, heart-broken by the NAVY Seal’s death who went in to help with the rescue efforts. Thrilled to read the hand-written letters of the kids. And, eventually, jubilant to see the boys’ happy faces and hear their voices after they were brought out safelyOn June 23, the 12 Wild Boars (junior soccer team of Thailand), ranging in age from 11 to 16 along with their 25-year-old assistant coach, went missing in the 6-km-long Tham Laung Cave Complex in northern Thailand when they decided to go exploring after a practice session. The annual monsoon flood waters filled the caves, blocking off the exits and trapping the team inside. They were pushed further back into a chamber of the complex as flood waters kept on rising and coming in. When the boys didn’t return home, a mother of one of the members informed the police of their disappearance. The social media and news channels erupted with news of the mishap.

Many skilled cave divers from around Thailand came to help in the search for the missing school boys and their coach. It caught the attention of the international media and the world turned towards it as well. International professional cave divers joined in the effort as well as hundreds of other volunteers. Two British divers, John Volanthen and Richard Stanton, discovered the group of 13 stranded on a high ledge almost 4 km into the cave complex and about 600 m underground. They were found after 9 days and they had managed to survive without food – only drinking water dripping off of stalactites.

“Four to five days after we became trapped, we heard the sound of water flowing towards us, forcing us to climb to a higher area,” coach Ekapol recounted. “In less than an hour, the water rose by 3 meters. By then, we knew there was no way out. All we could do was hold tight and hope that people to found us.” The Wild Boars would take turn digging holes in the cave wall with pieces of rock, some as deep as four meters, in an attempt to escape. Before beginning the daily work, each of them would drink water to fill up their stomachs. .They would dig from morning till night and then give up and go to sleep

On July 2, the boys and their coach were sitting high on the rocks, away from floodwater, when they heard people talking. Everyone went quiet and listened carefully. What happened next was filmed by the British divers and revealed to the World.

The 14-year-old, Adul Sam, was the one who communicated with Volanthen in English, telling him everyone was fine and they were hungry. He was the only one out of the group who knew English. Hence, he played a vital role as a communicator between the two groups.

“At first I thought they were Thai. So I shouted ‘Officer! Officer!’. But when they resurfaced, I realized they are foreigners. So I said ‘Hello’. I didn’t know what else to say. My brain was slow after so many days inside the caves” said Sam.

“It was the first ray of hope in days,” added his friend, 16-year-old “Tee” Kamluang. “Everyone was just so happy.”

The news of the boys being found alive spread like a wild-fire. Everyone was overjoyed. The families were relieved to hear that their loved ones were safe. During the next couple of days, the boys were supplied with high energy gels as food and medical teams went in to give them treatment for the minor injuries that the boys had sustained. They were given foil blankets to keep warm and were kept company by Thai Royal Navy SEAL divers and a nurse.

Handwritten notes from the boys were sent out with divers who made an 11-hour, back-and-forth journey to act as postmen. The boys sounded calm and reassuring. One of the boys, identified as Tun, wrote: “Mom and Dad, please don’t worry, I am fine. I’ve told Yod to get ready to take me out for fried chicken.’’

Another boy wrote “Don’t be worried, I miss everyone. Grandpa, Uncle, Mom, Dad and siblings, I love you all. I’m happy being here inside, the navy SEALS have taken good care. Yet another one wrote; “I’m doing fine, but the air is a little cold, but don’t worry. Although, don’t forget to set up my birthday party.”

In a letter of his own, the coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, apologized to the boys’ parents for the ordeal. “To the parents of all the kids, right now the kids are all fine, the crew is taking good care. I promise I will care for the kids as best as possible. I want to say thanks for all the support and I want to apologize to the parents,” he wrote.

A joint letter from the parents to coach Ekapol “Ake” was also sent in, which went like this:

“To Coach Ake,

Every mom and dad would like to ask Coach Ake to look after everyone. Coach Ake, don’t blame yourself. We want you to be relieved. Every mom and dad isn’t angry with you at all. And everyone understands and encourages you. Thank you for looking after the boys. Coach Ake, you went inside with them then you must come out, bringing them out safely as well.”

Outside, the authorities were deciding as to how to extract the team from disaster that was looming ahead. Many different options were looked at and each was more dangerous than the last.  Diving was seen as too risky given the boys’ lack of swimming experience, pitch-black muddy waters through narrow passageways, and the death of a retired Thai Navy SEAL, Saman Kunan, on Friday who was among those readying the cave for the boys’ dive: his own oxygen supply was believed to have run out whilst placing oxygen tanks on the route that the boys were to take if they attempted to go out that way.  Engineers were searching for a way through the mountain’s surface, hoping to drill down and reach them within the cave, but admitted it could take months as the boys were more than half a kilometer underground and the exact location from the surface was not known. Efforts to pump water out began immediately as authorities tried to take advantage of a break in monsoon rains. Huge pumps were placed at different locations so that the water levels would drop and the boys could walk out rather than to attempt the risky cave diving. Water was pumped out at a rate of more than 400,000 gallons per hour. Among those rooting for their rescue were world leaders, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and billionaire inventor Elon Musk, who tasked his team of engineers with building a “kid-sized submarine” made out of rocket parts that would be able to move the young boys through the cave’s narrow passageways. The authorities also contemplated supplying the boys and their coach with food, water and oxygen to stay in the cave potentially for months until the monsoon ended and waters receded but it was deemed too dangerous. There were also the depleting oxygen levels and built up of carbon dioxide.

The Thai Authorities who were heading the mission had said that incoming monsoon rains that could send water levels in the cave rising, coupled with falling oxygen levels in the enclosed space, which added to the urgency to free the group and declared they had a three- to four-day window to do so.

It took almost another week after being found, before the first group of boys could be brought out of the caves. The operation to rescue the Thai boys, with thousands of security personnel, engineers, geologists, medics, multinational world-class cave divers and other volunteers – including Elon Musk’s SpaceX – was finally complete on the 10th of June. It took three days, starting on Sunday, the 8th of June when the conditions to attempt the daring rescue were described as being at the peak of perfection and best they could hope for before new monsoon rains brought with them more water. A doctor with cave-diving experience went into the chamber and approved the boys for the operation. The Wild boars were brought out of the cave complex in groups of four during a course of three days. Each boy was tightly held to stretcher with full scuba masks over their faces. A diver in front led the way, with a boy tethered to him and another diver following behind.

Divers compared it to mountain climbing — but in tight, pitch-black spaces and pummeled by swirling floodwaters, towing a child. They had to guide the boys through passages as narrow as a couple of feet, weighed down by bulky diving equipment which included tanks of compressed oxygen.  At some points, the passages became so narrow that an adult could only go through while on all fours so instead of having the oxygen tanks on their backs, they were held on the sides of the stretchers and the divers. With the ‘’all-star’’ team of 18 strong British, Australian, Chinese, Thai, American and Danish, the mission was complete which was once feared impossible: pulling to safety the last of the 12 young soccer players and their coach from the remote chamber where they had been stranded for more than two weeks.

“We’ve rescued everyone,” said Narongsak Osatanakorn, the former governor of Chiang Rai province and the lead rescue official, as volunteers and journalists erupted in delighted cheers and claps. “We achieved a mission impossible.”

The Thai navy SEALs added in a Facebook post: “We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what.”

There were 13 medical teams and 13 helicopters and ambulances waiting at the entrance of the cave. As soon as the boys were brought out, they would be given immediate first aid, driven in the ambulance to the helicopter, which was ready a few kilometers away, and then airlifted to the nearest hospital in Chiang Rai where 5 emergency doctors and 30 other doctors were waiting for them. The whole 6th floor was booked for the team. Thai police officers lining the road from the entrance of the cave laughed and flashed thumbs-ups at the vast numbers of news organizations from all over the world waiting for this very scene. Onlookers cheered “Hooyah moo pa!” — a reference to the name of the boys’ soccer team, Moo Pa, or Wild Boars. The boys were kept there in isolation for almost a week; going through several medical and psychological tests. The families of the boys were only allowed to see them through glass doors for fear that any infections that the boys might have would spread. Doctors, nurses, psychologists and psychiatrists closely monitored their health for ten days.

On their last night at the hospital, the Wild Boars participated in a psychological exercise designed to boost their morale and prepare them for their social reintegration. Some of the boys were emotional as they thanked the medical team for looking after them. “Thank you for taking care of all of us,” one of them said in tears. “Every one of you has been so concerned about our health,” teary Adul added. “I really don’t know what to say. I love you all.”

The rescue mission involved more than 100 rescuers inside the cave, 1,000 members of the Thai army and almost 10,000 others who facilitated all kinds of assistance, from rides up to the cave site to meals of fried chicken, eggs, and rice and noodle soups for divers, volunteers and journalists. International experts set up rescue communications, while Thai villagers set up coffee stalls and massage stations. People from all over the globe acted as if they were one. When calamities strike, humans act as one and leave aside their differences. We feel each other’s pain. Can we not do so without adversities? The question is ‘’How many more disasters do we need to unite humanity?’’

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