The Thai Cave Rescue, Before Its Triumph, Teetered on the Brink of Disaster

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Rescuers evacuate one of the 12 boys trapped with their soccer coach inside a flooded cave in northern Thailand. The boys were carried on stretchers through the labyrinth.

Rescuers evacuate one of the 12 boys trapped with their soccer coach inside a flooded cave in northern Thailand. The boys were carried on stretchers through the labyrinth.


Photo:

Thai Navy SEAL/Associated Press

MAE SAI, Thailand—One of the world’s most dramatic rescue missions appeared to the world to take place like clockwork. It narrowly skirted disaster many times.

Early in the search for 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach, marooned several kilometers inside a flooded cave, rescuers unknowingly made it to within a few hundred meters of the group—only to be pushed back by rising waters.

Later, divers trying to navigate the murky, fast-moving currents in submerged passageways deemed the job so dangerous they almost gave up. One diver said the flow of water was so strong that his mask was torn away when he turned his head.

After the team was located, as preparations for a rescue were ramping up, one of the Thai divers setting out air tanks to ferry the trapped team through the long, winding stretches died when his own air ran low.

Thai Navy SEALs were quickly trying to learn the basics of cave-diving—their training is in open water and they had no cave experience, a much more complicated and dangerous endeavor.

When it came time to decide who to take out first, the boys decided on their own, presenting Thai SEALs with a list of their names in order, Thai authorities said.

Then, on Tuesday, shortly after the group inside the deepest cavern had been pulled to safety, a piece of equipment that drained water to levels that made the escape manageable broke. Without the pump, torrential rains that night sent water levels soaring through the cave.

“It’s lucky we completed our mission yesterday, because the cave is covered by water again today,” Royal Thai Navy SEAL commander Rear Admiral

Arpakorn Yookongkaew

said on Wednesday.

The first images of some of the boys rescued from the Thai cave resting in a hospital in Thailand.

The first images of some of the boys rescued from the Thai cave resting in a hospital in Thailand.


Photo:

Thai Government Public Relations Department/Reuters

The world waited with bated breath for days to hear the fate of the soccer team. Twelve members of the Wild Boars club and their coach, from the town of Mae Sai on the Thailand-Myanmar border, had became trapped more than half a kilometer underground on June 23 by flash floods. The group had explored parts of the cave before, and the outing had been planned as an afternoon adventure. The team moved further into the cave to find dry ground when waters cut off their escape.

When they were found after 10 days by divers, so great were the challenges of bringing the group to safety through the treacherous and partly submerged passageways that many experts didn’t expect Thai authorities to pull it off.

The rescuers were aided by a combination of luck and an outpouring of support from a motley group including military experts, international cave-divers, medical personnel and a Thai rock singer and her fan club.

With the rescue of a soccer team from a Thailand cave, new details are emerging about what the 12 boys endured and what it took to get them and their coach out safely. Photo: Reuters

The effort enlisted more than 900 police officers, 10 police helicopters, seven police ambulances, more than 700 air canisters and thousands of rescue workers. Volunteer cooks dished out more than 5,000 meals a day for the people on the ground. When divers needed wetsuits, air tanks and regulators, volunteers collected hundreds more than needed.

In the end, all the boys and their coach were carried and pulled out on stretchers by a team of 100-plus divers over three days beginning on Sunday.

“We’re not sure if this was a miracle, science or what,” the Thai Navy SEALs posted on their Facebook page on Tuesday, the day the rescue was completed. “All the 13 Wild Boars are now out of the cave.”

The boys and coach, who are generally in good health, will be quarantined in hospital for the next week while they are screened for unknown diseases, Thai health authorities said. Videos released by Thai officials showed family members, some weeping, waving at their sons through the hospital ward windows.

Thai Navy SEALs navigate a flooded section of the cave, in the rescue of the missing soccer team.

Thai Navy SEALs navigate a flooded section of the cave, in the rescue of the missing soccer team.


Photo:

ROYAL THAI NAVY/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

The Tham Luang cave system is an estimated 6 miles of twisting limestone caverns. A rescue unit of Thai Navy SEALs arrived at the cave before dawn on June 25, and later that day had gotten as far as a raised platform of dry ground dubbed Pattaya Beach, around 2.5 miles from the mouth of the cave. There they found footprints and shoes—signs that the lost group had passed by.

But the SEALs turned back, worried about coming rains and lacking enough air canisters to go further, officials said. They were only around 400 meters from the higher, drier area where the boys and their coach had taken shelter.

It would be a week before anyone could return. Heavy rains soon lashed the hills around the cave, gushing through the porous limestone and pushing the SEALs back toward the entrance.

Meanwhile, a group of cave-diving enthusiasts converged on Mae Sai with offers of help and expertise.

One team—three U.K. cave divers who had participated in numerous rescues in Europe—came at the suggestion of a British spelunker who lives near the caves and had explored them several times.

Soccer shoes and bicycles belonging to the 12 boys and their coach were discovered at the entrance of the deep cave where the team was trapped.

Soccer shoes and bicycles belonging to the 12 boys and their coach were discovered at the entrance of the deep cave where the team was trapped.


Photo:

Thai News Pix/Associated Press

British cave-diver Richard William Stanton was one of an eclectic group of volunteers and rescuers who came to the aid of the trapped boys.

British cave-diver Richard William Stanton was one of an eclectic group of volunteers and rescuers who came to the aid of the trapped boys.


Photo:

Linh Pham/Getty Images

Another group of Thailand-based cave divers was pulled together by Narinthorn Na Bangchang, a Bangkok-based actress and singer who saw the boys’ plight on TV and decided she had to do something.

Ms. Narinthorn flew to Mae Sai the night of June 25 with Ruengrit Changkwanyuen, an IT specialist and diving enthusiast who quickly became a go-to person for the SEALs for information on cave-diving gear and techniques.

Diving in caves is considerably more difficult than in open water or wrecks and requires specialist training, experts say. While divers in open water can return to the surface if they get into trouble, cave divers have to contend with dark, disorienting caverns, strong currents and low visibility in muddy water. In emergencies, cave divers can’t easily return to the surface and need to carefully monitor their air supplies.

Mr. Ruengrit suggested special harnesses favored by cave divers that let swimmers carry several air tanks strapped to their sides and left their hands free. He also showed the SEALs a type of regulator that isn’t easily knocked loose from its air tank by bumps against rocks.

Soldiers unload aid supplies near the cave complex.

Soldiers unload aid supplies near the cave complex.


Photo:

soe zeya tun/Reuters

Air tanks are delivered to the site for divers to use in the rescue mission.

Air tanks are delivered to the site for divers to use in the rescue mission.


Photo:

Linh Pham/Getty Images

By June 27, he was teaching the SEALs the basics of cave-diving at a nearby resort. The Thai SEALs are “great, skilled people but they just train for combat and basic rescue,” Mr. Ruengrit said. “They had never done anything in a cave.”

Ms. Narinthorn helped procure the gear, putting out calls to her fan club over Facebook, for everything from helmets to guide lines. When Ms. Narinthorn asked for 200 regulators and air tanks, her fans and other donors sent more than 400, while others volunteered to drive the equipment from Bangkok to Mae Sai, she says.

Heavy rains made conditions in the caves perilous. Ben Reymenants, a Belgian diver based in the southern island of Phuket who was one of the people collected by Ms. Narinthorn, recalls that in some places in the cave the current was so strong it ripped off his mask when he turned his head.

Foreign divers, including Belgian Ben Reymenants, at right, rushed to the scene to help rescuers.

Foreign divers, including Belgian Ben Reymenants, at right, rushed to the scene to help rescuers.


Photo:

Linh Pham/Getty Images

In an attempt to lower water levels, engineers set up heavy-duty pumps to drain water. In the 2½ weeks the boys were trapped, they pumped a billion liters of water out into the surrounding farmland and river system, enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool 400 times over.

The pumping effort allowed rescuers to lower the water level in key areas, providing dry ground for staging areas and places where divers could refresh their supply of air. Volunteers laid cables, lighting and guide ropes.

Volunteer divers worked alongside the Thai SEALs to try to locate the boys’ cave. They formed teams that pushed forward 200 meters at a time, supplied by other divers and volunteers who formed a “daisy chain” to pass tanks inside and place them at 25 meter intervals so the divers would have a constant supply of air.

Water is pumped from the cave during rescue operations. A critical pump stopped working shortly after the last person was rescued.

Water is pumped from the cave during rescue operations. A critical pump stopped working shortly after the last person was rescued.


Photo:

ye aung thu/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

Divers had to clamber up and down a chain of slippery hills, lugging air canisters up one side, then diving into submerged tunnels on the other.

Mr. Reymenants and a colleague took turns with the British cave-diving team to swim against the fierce flow and chart a path through winding passages, often feeling their way “like a catfish” because the water was so murky, he recalled.

At one point, he took a wrong turn and became stuck; his diving partner had to pull him out by the feet, he said. Another time, he thought it would be too dangerous and difficult to go on and was close to giving up, he said.

He persevered because it was clear that the Thai SEALs were preparing to go on, he said.

Royal Thai Navy personnel carry a portrait of Saman Gunan, a former Navy SEAL who died during the rescue operation.

Royal Thai Navy personnel carry a portrait of Saman Gunan, a former Navy SEAL who died during the rescue operation.


Photo:

panumas sanguanwong/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

“We had to dive, we had to walk, we had to climb through stone and rock but we had to keep fighting,” recalls Mr. Arpakorn, the SEAL Commander. “If we did not keep moving forward there would not be hope for the children.”

British divers, working their way out from guide lines that Mr. Reymenants and his partner had strung, found the boys and their coach on July 2.

Three SEALs and a doctor went into the cave to stay with the boys; others built a supply line for food, water, medical supplies and necessities.

Rescuers had three plans in mind: drilling teams would find a way to bore a hole into the cave where the boys were taking shelter; or water pumps could take out enough water to allow the boys to walk out of the cave, assuming the weather held. A third option was that the boys would dive out, a perilous journey they might not survive.

Rescue Against All Odds

The dramatic recovery of the trapped soccer team was pulled off through a combination of luck and an outpouring of support from experts and volunteers.

Rescuers used stretchers to swim and carry the boys and their coach through the winding passageways of the cave.

Tham Luang cave, overhead view

500 feet

100 meters

Main entrance

were used, placed every 25 meters inside the cave .

were pumped out of the cave.

Dry areas drained in part by water pump.

were involved.

10 police helicopters and 140 vehicles were used.

Rescuers’ base camp

provided security and traffic control

Stretches between the base camp and where the soccer team was found are winding and narrow. Some parts were submerged.

Views looking into the cave

Cross section

Person

to scale

Complex

continues

Approximate location where team was found

Rescuers used stretchers to swim and carry the boys and their coach through the winding passageways of the cave.

Tham Luang cave, overhead view

500 feet

100 meters

Main entrance

were used, placed every 25 meters inside the cave .

were pumped out of the cave.

Dry areas drained in part by water pump.

were involved.

10 police helicopters and 140 vehicles were used.

Rescuers’ base camp

provided security and traffic control

Stretches between the base camp and where the soccer team was found are winding and narrow. Some parts were submerged.

Views looking into the cave

Cross section

Person

to scale

Complex

continues

Approximate location where team was found

Rescuers used stretchers to swim and carry the boys and their coach through the winding passageways of the cave.

Tham Luang cave, overhead view

500 feet

100 meters

Main entrance

were used, placed every 25 meters inside the cave .

were pumped out of the cave.

Dry areas drained in part by water pump.

were involved.

10 police helicopters and 140 vehicles were used.

Rescuers’ base camp

provided security and traffic control

Stretches between the base camp and where the soccer team was found are winding and narrow. Some parts were submerged.

Views looking into the cave

Cross section

Person

to scale

Complex

continues

Approximate location where team was found

Rescuers used stretchers to swim and carry the boys and their coach through the winding passageways of the cave.

Main entrance

500 feet

100 meters

Dry areas drained in part by water pump.

Rescuers’ base camp

Stretches between the

Stretches between the base camp and where the soccer team was found are winding and narrow. Some parts were submerged.

Approximate location where team was found

were used, placed every 25 meters inside the cave .

were pumped out of the cave.

were involved.

10 police helicopters and 140 vehicles were used.

provided security and traffic control

Photo: Thai NavySEAL Facebook Page via AP

Sources: French Federation of Speleology; surveys taken in 1986 and 1987 (cave path); Thai government; interviews with rescuers and staff reports (location and rescue details)

By July 6, two weeks after the team was trapped, time ran out. One by one, contingency plans failed. An early idea to leave the boys in place until the end of the rainy season—typically from June to November—was scrapped over health concerns. Drilling teams dug more than 100 pilot holes but were unable to locate the cavern. Pumping out water had been successful—three kilometers beyond the entrance of the cave had been all but dried out completely—but forecasters warned of heavy rains in the coming days.

Conditions in the cave piled on further pressure. Oxygen levels were down to 15% in the boys’ chamber, well below the normal 21% in the atmosphere. A level of 12% is considered seriously hazardous to health.

Over the next two days, the operation to dive the boys out unfolded. Nitikarn Binkasun, a disaster rescue worker from Bangkok, said he was filling air canisters day and night, with 500-plus in the cave at any one time and another 200 in the queue to be refilled by a bank of compressors kept outside the cave. He said he had never done anything on so large a scale. “I didn’t think anyone would be so crazy as to do this,” he said.

Rescue volunteers amass near the cave.

Rescue volunteers amass near the cave.


Photo:

Linh Pham/Getty Images

Inside the cave, tragedy struck when volunteer diver

Saman Gunan,

a former SEAL, died when he ran out of air while laying air canisters for other divers.

Navy Capt. Anand Surawan,

who oversaw Mr. Saman’s team, said he waited hours for the 38-year-old to return from the cave. At about 1 a.m. his diving partner trudged back alone. “We lost one life,” said Capt. Anand, “but another 13 lives were still expecting us so we had to move forward.”

Meanwhile, the Wild Boars, many of whom don’t know how to swim, were schooled in the basics of diving and were building strength back. They drew the SEALs logo, featuring two sharks and an anchor, with the words “13 Wild Boars,” in chalk on the wall of the cave. They exchanged letters with their parents, delivered by the divers. The mood was upbeat.

The SEALs sent an Australian doctor and cave-diving expert in to assess the health of the group inside, finding them in remarkably good spirits, says Mr. Reymenants, the Belgian diver. The doctor decided the Wild Boars were strong enough to withstand a passage through the flooded chambers.

Rescuers navigated tight spaces in the cave complex.

Rescuers navigated tight spaces in the cave complex.


Photo:

Thailand Department of National Parks and Wildlife/Associated Press

On Sunday, the extraction began. Thai SEALs and volunteer dive experts had created a plan that posted two seasoned cave divers, most of them foreigners, at nine stations along the way to the entrance.

Each boy was placed on a stretcher, wearing a wetsuit and full face mask, with an air tank at his side. Each pair of divers carried the stretcher along the cave passages, and through submerged tunnels and open chambers, meaning that the boys didn’t swim or climb at all, says a person familiar with the operation.

The boys were medicated to keep them from panicking underwater, but weren’t rendered unconscious, Thai officials said.

Four boys were brought out on Sunday, another four Monday and the final four and the team’s coach on Tuesday. Aside from low body temperatures and a trace of pneumonia in some, all 13 were deemed in relatively good shape.

Soon after, the pump gave out.

—Wilawan Watcharasakwet and Warangkana Chomchuen contributed to this article.

Write to Phred Dvorak at phred.dvorak@wsj.com and Jake Maxwell Watts at jake.watts@wsj.com

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