Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Miracle in the Cave

I just have to make a post detailing the miraculous rescue of the Wild Boars soccer team, since it was a remarkable story of endurance, and the lengths that perfect strangers will go to save someone else's child. So here goes:

12 members of the Wild Boars soccer team, ages 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old assistant coach, Ekkapol Chantawongset, embarked on a team-building exercise on Saturday, June 23. The group set out on their bikes to the Tham Luang cave—a 45-minute ride from their school. The goal of the team-building exercise was to scrawl their names at the end of the 2.5 km (about 1.5 miles) tunnel in the cave as proof they’d completed the journey. This “rite of passage” was said to be crucial to the team’s training since they spend so much time together, and it was a way for the assistant coach to learn to manage the team on his own. 37-year-old head coach, Nopparat Kathawong, said that he didn’t know where Ekkapol would be taking the team, but that he trusted him to keep the boys safe. (He had an appointment, which is why he couldn't go along.)

The Tham Luang cave system—one of Thailand’s longest with a series of tunnels, slippery rocks and cliffs with stark drop-offs—was a place the boys knew well, since many of the boys had explored the nooks and crannies of the caves in the mountain range before. But what made this circumstance different was the time of year, as it was the beginning of the wet season. Sometime after the boys entered the cave, it started raining, and the tunnel filled with water and cut off the team's exit route. They had no choice but to keep forging ahead, deeper into the cave, where they found a dry ledge 4 km (about 2.5 miles) into the cave. They would be stranded there in total darkness for days.

When the head coach checked his phone at 7 PM that evening, there were at least 20 calls from worried parents, none of whose sons had come home. He realized that something had gone terribly wrong. One of the 13-year-old team members who hadn't gone with the rest of the team told Nopparat that the team had gone exploring in the Tham Luang caves. Nopparat raced to the cave, but all he found when he made it to the cave entrance that night were the boys’ bikes and bags next to what triggered his worst fears—water pouring out from the cave opening.

Over the next few days, rescuers from across Thailand began to devise a plan to locate and rescue the team. More than half a dozen foreign governments helped with the rescue effort, and over 1000 people were involved. On July 2, nine long days after the boys entered the cave, two divers found the team alive, huddled on a 10 sq meter (approx 107 sq foot) ledge. Getting the boys out of the cave would be a major ordeal since the boys were very weak, and most didn’t even know how to swim.

Long story short, all 12 boys and their coach were rescued; four boys on July 8, four more on July 9, and the final four boys and their coach on July 10. The final rescues happened just in time. The cave rescue could have easily ended in disaster. One of the pumps that had been pumping millions of gallons of water out of the cave to keep the waters from rising even further, failed, and the waters in the cave quickly began rising, leaving the last of the rescuers to scramble to get out of the cave.

I can't imagine the fear those boys must have felt being trapped in the dark with very little food and water, not knowing what time it was, how long they had been in the cave, what their families must've been thinking, when or IF they'd ever be rescued, and if this was how they were going to die. How did they survive? The boys had no food or snacks, but they did have a supply of drinkable water in the form of moisture dripping from the cave walls. The boys' assistant coach, Ekkapol, deserves a lot of credit for keeping the team calm. He drew on his years of experience as a monk, and taught the boys meditation techniques to help them stay calm and use as little air as possible, and told them to lie still to conserve their strength. He truly cared about the boys as if they were his own family.

The only tragedy in this saga was that Saman Kunan, a former Thai Navy SEAL died from lack of oxygen while delivering oxygen tanks inside the cave on July 6. He was only 38 years old. This ordeal could have ended SO much worse in so many ways, all things considered. There were many miracles, and it was wonderful to see people from all over the world come to Thailand to aid in the rescue.

From nearly the first moment I heard about the missing soccer team, I knew it had "movie" written all over it, especially since all 13 Thai cave boys survived. I immediately thought of the movie "The 33" about the Chilean mine collapse, and this situation had a lot of similarities. I look forward to seeing the "Wild Boars" movie in the not-too-distant future. ("Wild Boars" is my prediction/suggestion for a fitting title for the potential movie.)

Here are a couple images of the Tham Luang cave system:
The boys were given a crash course in scuba diving, since that was the only way through the flooded areas. Each boy was fitted with a wetsuit and a full-face diving mask, and they were each accompanied by two experienced divers. If the boys had started panicking on the journey out of the cave (which took about three hours), that could quickly lead to a dire situation, so the boys were given sedatives to keep them calm. (I read that they were actually out cold.)

I read this description of the arduous journey out of the cave in one of the many articles I read about the ordeal: "During the hours-long trip out of the cave, each boy was accompanied underwater by two divers helping them navigate the dark, murky water. The most dangerous part of the journey was the first kilometer, during which the divers and boys were required to squeeze through a narrow, flooded channel. Rescuers needed to hold the boys' oxygen tanks in front of them and swim pencil-like through submerged holes. Having completed this section, the boys were then handed over to separate, specialist rescue teams, who helped assist them through the remainder of the cave, much of which they could wade or walk through."
Pictures of the Wild Boars soccer team. The second picture was taken right before they left for the cave on June 23:
And here are four Navy SEALs (including a doctor who stayed with the team for a week after their discovery), who were the last group of rescuers to emerge from the cave on Tuesday, July 10:
The boys cried when they heard that Saman Kunan, the former Thai Navy SEAL died while assisting in the rescue effort. Here they are, still in the hospital, posing with Saman's photo that they all wrote messages on.

All 12 boys and their coach were released from the hospital today, one week after being rescued from the cave. An international press conference was held so the press could ask the boys questions. 
What a happy ending to a story that could've ended so tragically.


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