Thai cave rescue: Navy Seals say mission came 'close to disaster'

Rescuers who freed Wild Boars team from Tham Luang cave tell of dangers that included heavy rain and low oxygen

The 12 boys whose rescue from a cave in northern Thailand this week captivated the world, have had a tearful reunion with their parents as it was revealed just how close the mission came to disaster.

Footage released by Thai authorities on Wednesday evening showed the 12 children and Ekkapol Chantawong, the 25-year-old football coach trapped with them, in hospital beds wearing surgical masks, clasping their palms in gratitude to the camera.

Another clip showed the boys’ parents watching them from behind a window, waving and wiping away tears of joy and relief.

The reunions, experienced at a distance or through glass because the boys must be cleared of potential infections, were broadcast as part of a nationally televised press conference about the rescue of the members of the Wild Boars football club.

Authorities gave further details of the 17-day operation to free the boys from the Tham Luang cave in the Doi Nang Non mountain range, framing it as a battle against the elements.

When the boys’ bikes were first discovered outside the cave, rescuers initially thought the mission to find the children would be straightforward. They learned otherwise a few days into the search when heavy rain filled the cave faster then expected, forcing even navy personnel to retreat.

“We fought and were defeated, losing space to the water,” said Narongsak Osatanakorn, head of the joint command centre coordinating the operation.

Navy Seals began deep forays into the cave but were hindered by the muddy conditions, narrow paths and high water levels. “The cave was unlike anything we had ever experienced, it was so dark,” said Apakorn Youkongkaew, a rear admiral in the Thai navy.

So challenging were the conditions that, for 23 hours, the Seals lost contact with two teams they sent into the cave, he said.

A week into the search their efforts to pump rain water out of the cave were proving fruitless. They called for heavier-duty equipment and a contingent of expert cave divers from the UK, Australia, China, US and Europe.

John Volanthen, a Briton, found the boys on 2 July. They were huddled on a muddy slope nearly two miles inside the cave.

Youkongkaew paid tribute to the bravery and resilience of the children, who endured 10 days of starvation in near-total darkness, never knowing if help was coming. “Weren’t our kids amazing?” he said.

The next challenge was getting the group out. As authorities started pumping water from the cave at industrial levels – they would eventually remove an estimated 10bn cubic metres – a second hurdle emerged. Oxygen levels in the cave were falling to toxic levels, limiting the time available to free the group to less than a month, said Youkongkaew.

Fear of the boys falling into a coma from oxygen deprivation forced the authorities to go ahead with the evacuation. “Another factor was that water was coming,” Osatanakorn said. “The rain in the north is massive, unlike other region. The kids wouldn’t have any place to stay. They had only space of five metres by five metres. It would be gradually reduced.”

The 12 boys wore full-face scuba masks and were attached to divers as they traversed the underwater parts of the journey. They were transferred to stretchers and wrapped in blankets whenever they got to patches of dry ground. Their vital signs were monitored at several points throughout the journey.

The navy Seal chief appeared to confirm reports that the boys had been sedated for the journey, telling the press briefing: “Along the way some may have slept.”

Wang Yingjie, leader of the Chinese contingent of the rescue team, said on Wednesday that he was unsure, as they began the rescue, whether their efforts would succeed. “But we had no choice,” he said at a celebratory lunch in Mae Sai. “When I saw the first kid [emerge] I felt we successfully finished one step. We were happy. Then, when I saw the second kid, I thought our plan was working.”

He said the foreign divers had cooperated seamlessly. “Language wasn’t a barrier and we found that language used in technical terms, like diving and rope system, was universal,” he said.

Thailand’s prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, seated right, in a meeting on 9 July with, left, Narongsak Osatanakorn
Thailand’s prime minister, Prayuth Chan-ocha, seated right, in a meeting on 9 July with, left, Narongsak Osatanakorn, head of the joint command centre coordinating the rescue. Photograph: Reuters

Yingjie and his team apologised for wearing slippers to the formal event; he said their feet had been macerated by the dozens of hours they had spent submerged in muddy water in recent days.

Australian divers involved in the rescue told the Guardian on Wednesday that they had been moments away from disaster. Hours after the last Wild Boar was freed the main pump in the cave failed, and water levels started inching upwards, the divers said.

One said he heard screaming from deeper inside the cave. “All these headlights start coming over the hill and the water was coming,” he said. “It was noticeably rising.”

The remaining 100 workers inside the cave were frantically rushing to the exit and were safely out less than an hour later.

Osatanakorn, who has become a national hero following the successful rescue, called the boys “a symbol of unity among mankind”. He added: “Everyone worked together, regardless of race and religion, as the goal was the rescue of the youth football team and returning them home safely.”

He said the children should not be blamed for getting trapped and that they could appear before the media once their health improved, if doctors and parents gave the go-ahead.

The rescue chief’s stern demeanour of the past weeks had dissolved by Wednesday evening. At points during the briefing, he chuckled and fidgeted. He told the Guardian he wanted to act as himself in a movie of the rescue. Outside, he was mobbed by volunteers. When asked for a selfie photo, he replied: “Why not? The boys are out.”

Additional reporting by Jacob Goldberg


Michael Safi and Veena Thoopkrajae in Mae Sai

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