Inside the dark labyrinth of the Thai cave: Navy SEALs recount rescue of footballers

CHIANG RAI: When Thai Navy captain Anand Surawan was informed of a missing youth football team, he thought the search would be easy.

At 2.45am on Jun 24, the navy SEAL deputy commander was outside the entrance to the Tham Luang cave complex in Mae Sai district, listening to an official report on how 12 boys and their coach could have been trapped inside. 

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It had been several hours since they disappeared, leaving behind only bicycles, shoes and football boots.

“I couldn’t quite imagine what it’d be like inside the caves. I thought there would be some light,” he told journalists from around the world at a news conference in Chiang Rai on Wednesday (Jul 11). 

“We knew which way they had taken. It shouldn’t be difficult.”

As soon as he stepped inside, however, the task at hand became daunting. In front of him was total darkness that had swallowed 13 young lives and hidden them deep inside the 10km cave system.

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“It was pitch black. The distance from the entrance to the T-junction is almost three kilometres. Our men had to climb on precipitous walls of rocks and squeeze through narrow-gauged tunnels. The walls were all muddy, suggesting the caves had just been flooded.”

The route to where the Thai boys and their football coach are trapped in the cave. (Graphic: Rafa Estrada)

The first day Thai Navy SEALs entered the caves, they waded through murky water on a sharp, rocky terrain and dived in near darkness. They searched for survivors from 5.00am to 4.00pm, losing track of time due to the absence of natural light. 

By that time, water had begun to rise, first by 3cm per hour then by 8cm and 13cm. The potential danger of a flash flood forced them to retreat in a hurry.

Later, floodwater filled the chambers where they had been, where handprints and footprints of the missing 13 had led them to believe the boys – aged from 11 to 16 – and their 25-year-old coach were trapped inside.

“We informed the then Chiang Rai governor we needed water pumps,” the navy captain said. “We weren’t sure if there would be any spots for us to resurface for air along the 3 to 4km route.”

As water was pumped out, the treacherous search continued. 

They were placing guide lines from the third chamber to the T-junction when two British cave divers – John Volanthen and Rick Stanton – ran out of their lines in an air pocket a few hundred metres away. 

When Volanthen resurfaced, he saw a group of children sitting and standing on a ledge – the 13 strangers he and other divers had been looking for.

“They left the third chamber, found the kids and returned to inform us,” Anand recounted. “It took them 5.5 hours in total. Later, we sent in the first four Thai SEALs.”

“WE COULDN’T LEAVE THEM BEHIND”

According to the navy captain, divers worked inside the Tham Luang caves without knowing if it was day or night. It is always dark and the water is cold. “We had no idea what time it was and only looked at how many hours had passed,” he said. 

The first four divers – the crème de la crème of Thai navy SEAL – were deployed to deliver food and blankets to the survivors. They were followed by three more officers, including army medic Pak Loharnshoon. Each of them carried four air tanks for the journey.

Both teams had lost contact for 23 hours before three divers returned to the third chamber, where a command centre was located. 

They were sent to the hospital because their physical condition were “very bad”. The rest, according to the captain, had nearly used up their air and were unable to dive back.

“Only those who returned had some air left to come back and report,” he said. “For commanders, it’s stressful when you’ve tasked your men with something but you’ve got no idea if they’re alive or dead.”

Prior to the rescue mission, none of the Thai Navy SEALs divers had experience in cave diving, let alone doing so in sophisticated cave networks full of winding, narrow tunnels such as the Tham Luang system. 

At one point, divers had to detach their air tanks in order to dive through. Each journey is dark, cold and dangerous.

“But we had 13 lives waiting for us and we couldn’t leave them behind. So we soldiered on,” Anand said, adding air tanks were then placed along the rescue route. “Each trip took divers 3 to 10 hours before I could find out they’re still alive upon their return.”

HERO OF THAM LUANG

The search and rescue mission at the Tham Luang cave complex lasted 17 days. 

Its complexity and unique nature gripped the world and drew more than 10,000 people from Thailand and abroad to what has turned out to be a historic multinational operation. 

But before its completion on Tuesday, when the last five survivors were safely evacuated, the world learnt of the death of retired Navy SEAL Saman Kunan, who ran out of oxygen while on a mission.

“He volunteered to join four foreigners and one Thai diver to place air tanks along the route. The foreign divers took three hours but he and his diving buddy took longer,” Anand said. 

“Seven hours had passed and they still hadn’t emerged. But I was confident; I thought they could be tired had taken some rest.”

At 1am, Saman’s diving buddy returned alone and informed his commander of the incident. “That night, we lost one life. But there were 13 lives still waiting for us. We had to press on,” Anand added.

“We’ve been trained for risky tasks and we’re always ready for such loss.”

Despite the fatality, the navy captain said these Thai Navy SEALs have now gained knowledge of cave diving from world-class cave diving experts, who showed them techniques that could improve their abilities to mitigate disasters in Thailand.

HOW THE BOYS LEFT THE CAVES

The rescue operation has been described as one of the toughest of its kind in the world. Since the the football team was found on Jul 2, rescue personnel raced against time to evacuate the trapped 13. 

More than 10,000 officers from the Thai army, navy and air force, police personnel, medics, diving experts, engineers, geologists, volunteers and many more worked around the clock to maintain oxygen level and stop water from rising inside the cave complex amid monsoon rains, while forming a safe evacuation plan.

On Sunday, the first group was brought out – four boys aged 14-16. There were followed by the second group on Monday – another four aged 12-14. 

The last group came out on Tuesday, along with three Thai SEALs and the army medic who had stayed with them for more than a week.

During their evacuation, they wore wet suits and full-faced masks attached to respirators. Each of the 13 was escorted out by two divers through a submerged underground tunnel to the third chamber of the cave complex, where they were put on stretchers and carried out to ambulances.

According to the SEAL deputy chief, the children did not swim out themselves. 

“They just had to keep breathing while divers took them out of the caves,” he said.

Shortly after the Wild Boar football team, the SEALs and the army medic had left the caves, the main pump that had been draining water for more than two weeks malfunctioned, The Guardian reported. 

In no time, water that had been held back started to rise, forcing rescue personnel still clearing up equipment to rush out.

“It’s just like a movie,” said Thai Navy SEAL commander Arpakorn Yookongkaew. “But with a happy ending.”

READ MORE | Full coverage of the search and rescue operation:
https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/topic/Thailand-cave-rescue


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