On Tuesday, July 10, 2018, the world watched with bated breath as an international team of rescuers safely extracted the two remaining members of the Moo Pa, or, Wild Boar, soccer team from a flooded cave in Thailand. The twelve boys, aged between 11 and 17, along with their coach, Ekkapol Ake Chantawong, had been trapped inside the intricate seven-mile long Tham Luang Nang Non cave system in northern Thailand's Chiang Rai Province for over two weeks.
The 18-day ordeal began after soccer practice on June 23, 2018, when the team headed to the cavern to celebrate player Peerapat Sompiangjai’s birthday. While the 2.5-mile trek to their destination was easy enough, a sudden downpour of heavy monsoon rains flooded the subterranean labyrinth, making it impossible to leave. That night, the boys were reported missing, and their bicycles were found outside of the mouth of the cave system. However, any attempt to locate them was hampered by heavy rains that kept the water levels high, blocking access to the chambers where rescuers hoped the group may have found refuge.
Miraculously, on Monday, July 2, two British rescue divers found all 13 individuals alive on a muddy ledge in a dry air pocket deep inside the cave. While the boys had lost weight, they were alert and calm and had managed to sustain themselves on the treats brought to celebrate Peerapat’s birthday. Though the news was met with much joy, the rescuers knew that extracting all 13 safely was a tricky endeavor, given that about 1.5 miles of the narrow passage to the exit was flooded with water, as deep as 15 feet in some areas. While the Thai Navy SEALs team strategized on the best way to bring the trapped players home, rescue divers brought in food, light, and supplies, and kept the boys’ spirits lifted by delivering letters to and from their families.
The most obvious solution to free the boys was to pump water out of the cave system. However, that effort was abandoned after officials realized that the 35 million gallons extracted seemed to make little difference. Another idea was to drill a hole into the cave and lift the boys to safety. However, the team was trapped 0.5 miles underground in an area covered by dense jungle, and even if their exact location could be determined, it would take several weeks to bore a hole. An effort to find a back entrance to the cave also proved futile in the dense vegetation.
After much debate, it was decided that the only feasible solution was to have the boys swim to freedom. However, given that the journey was arduous for even advanced divers, and the fact that a number of the boys could not swim, this was a risky proposition. The fear was exacerbated by the unfortunate demise of 38-year-old Saman Gunan, a retired Thai Navy SEAL who suffocated while placing oxygen tanks along the underwater route. But with the threat of heavy rainfall, which could increase cave flooding and delay rescue until as late as October, as well as the cave’s rapidly dropping oxygen levels, the officials had no other choice.
The tricky mission began on Wednesday, July 4 when thirteen specialist divers and five Thai Navy SEALs entered the cave, installed a static, 8mm safety rope, and began teaching the boys and the coach how to dive and swim. The rescue attempt started at 5:40 p.m. local time on Sunday, July 8. Each boy, equipped with a diving suit, boots, gloves, helmet, and a full-face diving mask, was tethered to a lead diver, who also carried an oxygen tank for him, with another diver following. While navigating the dry areas, rescuers carried each boy on a stretcher. It took eight hours for the first boy to emerge and two more for the next three. Four more boys were rescued on Monday, while the final four and the coach were safely retrieved early Tuesday evening.
All 13 Wild Boars were transported to the hospital by ambulance for treatment. Hopefully, they will be able to recover quickly from the ordeal and return to playing their favorite sport. “I’m happy for Thais all over the country, for the people of Mae Sai, and actually just everyone in the world because every news channel has presented this story and this is what we have been waiting for,” said Payap Maiming, who provided supplies to volunteers and journalists. “It’s really a miracle. It’s hope and faith that has brought us this success.”
Resources: CNN.com, BBC.co.uk,vox.com, guardian.com