In the summer of 2018, the entire world’s attention focused on a drama unfolding in the small, beautiful country of Thailand
n June 13, 2018 a dozen students from a school in Thailand disappeared.
The 12 boys, age 11 to 16, belonged to a football team. They had stayed after school to practice with their assistant coach. When the boys had not returned home by 7 p.m., their worried parents contacted Head Coach Nopparat Khanthawong. They wanted to know where their children were, but Nopparat didn’t know. He called his assistant coach and then each member of the football team, until finally one boy answered.
“It’s Phiraphat’s birthday so they decided to explore the Tham Luang caves,” he said, “but I didn’t go with them.”
The boys should have returned hours ago. Disregarding the monsoon outdoors, Coach Nopparat ran all the way to the cave to see what had happened to his junior football team. At the entrance he saw water rushing into the cave. The only sign of the boys were bicycles, soccer cleats, and schoolbags left in the muddy path nearby. The boys must have become trapped inside the cave by the incoming water!
Tham Luang Nang Non is a cave system more than six miles long. Its twisting chambers are a popular destination for tourists and explorers. A sign at the mouth of the cavern warns visitors not to enter during the rainy season, due to the danger of flooding.
On that day, heavy rains had poured into the cave from several openings, churning up muddy water and making it impossible for rescuers to find the boys. The lower areas of the caves were already under water, and the water level was rising. Had the children been able to find a safe place inside the cave? A search party entered the cave but returned empty-handed after an hour and a half. There was nothing to do except pray for a miracle.
Word of the disaster spread quickly through the district, making headlines in the international media as well. Thai Navy SEAL divers launched a search mission. Experienced cavers also converged on the cave. One British expert who lived locally knew the cave well. He was able to direct the authorities as they organized search missions.
Aboveground, Thai policemen used sniffer dogs to search the sinkholes on the mountain, hoping to find a shaft that could provide an alternative entrance into the cave system below.
As days passed, it became harder to hold out hope for survivors. The rescuers kept searching, but they quickly discovered that the water in some places reached their necks, and in other places it reached the ceiling. Even if the boys were alive, they had no food and no source of clean water. Time was running out.
To the Rescue
Rescuers used maps produced in the 1980s to guess where the boys might be. One elevated section of the cave looked promising, but it was over a mile from the mouth of the cave. Rescuers would need to swim long distances in murky water and squeeze through tight spaces. Every day, Thai Navy SEALs tried to swim further, laying lines to guide them back out. Their limited air supply prevented them from going deep enough into the cave.
It was time to organize a global team of professional cave-diving experts. Members of BCRC (British Cave Rescue Council) were the first to answer Thailand’s desperate call for international assistance. They were followed by rescue diver teams from the US, Australia, and China, who brought professional, specialized equipment with them. By this time, the boys had been missing for five days and were in danger of starvation. If they were still alive.
On July 2, two British divers made it to the section of the cave where the boys were expected to be. There was no one there. With very little air remaining, the men swam another thousand feet deeper into the cave. They didn’t dare go further. Surfacing in an air pocket for one last search, they were rewarded with the most marvelous sight. Twelve tired, frightened boys and their coach were huddled together on a narrow rock ledge.
Hope in the Darkness
The world was electrified. The children had been discovered alive! The wonderful news was greeted with relief and delight when the provincial governor announced to the media, “We found them safe, but the operation isn’t over.” Now it was necessary to devise a plan to get the children safely out of the cave.
International divers led three Thai Navy SEALs through the watery passages so they could join the boys, including a Thai Navy physician who examined them and reported that they seemed to be in reasonable health. The children were given nutrient-rich food, their first meal in ten days. The doctor applied antiseptic to the cuts on their bare feet and hands sustained during their frantic escape from the flooding. It was cold in the cave, and they were given thin heat-reflective foil emergency blankets. The three SEALs volunteered to stay with them until they could be brought out of the flooded cavern.
During the endless hours of waiting, the boys had tried to dig their way to the surface using stone fragments. By the time they were found, the hole they’d dug was 15 feet deep!
The rescue effort was complicated. Monsoon rains continued to pour water into the cave system. Powerful pumps were brought in to remove over 420,000 US gallons every hour. It took even experienced divers six hours to reach the ledge where the group had found refuge, and five hours for the return trip. Parts of the twisting path leading to their location allowed the men to walk upright, but other sections were underwater, with strong currents and no visibility. Some areas were extremely narrow — including an opening only 15 inches by 28 inches wide!
Out of Reach
Thai authorities considered their options. Some of the boys did not know how to swim at all, and none of them knew how to scuba dive. Even the professional cave divers said this was the most treacherous diving they’d ever encountered. All the children were weak from their ordeal. Should they supply the children with food and wait until the end of the dangerous monsoon season? Perhaps the boys could be taught basic diving skills?
Searches continued for an alternative entrance to the cave system. More than a hundred rescue shafts were bored into the soft limestone, but none of them was suitable. Building an oxygen line was considered, as well as laying a telephone wire for communication.
Saving the boys presented numerous dangers, both for the children and their rescuers. Fifty international experts and 40 divers from Thailand gathered to prepare for the mission. Members of the BCRC rehearsed rescue maneuvers in a swimming pool with local school children playing the role of the trapped boys.
Suddenly, on the eighth of July, all nonessential personnel were cleared from the mouth of the cave. Oxygen levels inside the cave were dropping dangerously. It was reported that the monsoon winds would intensify. The threat of heavy storms increased with each day that passed. Soon the cave would become unpassable until October. There was no more time to wait.
A Daring Mission
The Thai interior minister announced that they were ready for a dangerous dive rescue. Eighteen rescue divers were sent into the cave. Which child would be first to come out? There was some debate about whether it was better to bring out the weakest or the strongest boy first. It was finally decided to let the boys volunteer in whatever order they wanted.
The children had no idea that their adventure had captured global attention. Assuming that they’d have to ride their bicycles home, the football team chose to let the ones living furthest away leave first.
Fifteen days after entering the cave, the first boy was dressed in a wetsuit for the six-hour journey out of the huge, flooded cavern. A buoyancy jacket went over the wetsuit, with a harness that was clipped to the rescue diver swimming ahead of him. An oxygen tank was attached to the boy’s back, and he was given a full-face diving mask with breathing apparatus.
The rescuers were concerned that the boys might panic during the dangerous trip out of the cave. That could cause the rescue to fail and the boy or the rescuers could die. To prevent that from happening, an Australian anesthesiologist who was also a cave diver administered a mild sedative to each boy before the dangerous trip began. That helped keep the boys calm and safe.
At intervals of 30 to 45 minutes, a rescue diver maneuvered a boy into the water with one arm, while his other hand grasped a guideline rope that led to the cave entrance. In the narrowest passages, the divers pushed the boys ahead of them, taking care not to dislodge their face masks.
The boys were pulled along facedown. The rescue divers kept watch for bubbles to show that the children were breathing. When they reached a point where the escape route was blocked, there was no choice but to dive under the water and swim past the barrier. A fresh rescue team was waiting on the other side to temporarily remove the boy’s diving gear and carry him on a stretcher for the next 600 feet. This conserved the child’s energy before the next stage of his journey to safety.
Hundreds of rescuers were stationed all along the long and treacherous escape route leading to the cave entrance. The boys were wrapped in “sked” stretchers and carried or ziplined the last mile and a half. It took skill and effort, but the brave volunteers slipped and slid the boys over the slippery rocks and through the muddy water to the mouth of the cave.
It took three days to bring all the boys and their coach out of the cave.
Safe at Last
The three Thai Navy SEALs who stayed with the boys until the rescue was completed were the last ones out. Without warning, some of the pumps outside the cave broke down. This caused the water level to rise 60 inches in only 10 minutes, forcing a hundred rescuers (more than a mile inside the cave) to evacuate immediately. There was no choice but to abandon their costly rescue equipment and race against time to reach the exit. The last diver stumbled out in the nick of time. Minutes later the cave was completely flooded.
Ambulances were waiting outside the cave to transport the children to the nearest hospital. Some of them were airlifted by helicopter. At first, the boys were only allowed to eat rice porridge, until they recovered from the prolonged fasting. After medical examinations, Thai Health Ministry officials reported that the boys were in surprisingly good condition. They’d lost an average of four and a half pounds each during the ordeal. The children wore sunglasses until their eyes adjusted to light again. They also received antibiotics to prevent infection.
All around the world, people celebrated. Ten thousand people, including 90 divers from 50 different countries, had united to save the lives of 12 Thai schoolboys and their teacher, a miracle witnessed by the whole world.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 799)
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