By Lt Col (Ret) Matthew Durham
On Saturday, July 23rd, the Moo Pa, roughly translated to Wild Boars, a junior association football team (“soccer” to Americans–“football” to the rest of the world) from Chiang Rai province, on the northern border of Thailand, had just finished practice and planned a quick trip. It was later reported they traveled to the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system to celebrate a birthday, with lots of food. This turned out to be incorrect. They rode their bikes up to the nearby cave entrance simply to explore the cave a little. They were led by the Boars’ 25 year-old assistant coach, Ekkaphon Chantawong, a trained Buddhist monk. After parking their bikes 12 boys, ages 11-16 and Coach Ek entered the cave. Almost as soon as they went into the darkness it began raining. Hard.
Point in fact, in 2018 the monsoon season had arrived two to three weeks early in northern Thailand. There were signs posted advising not to get beyond the entrance of the 6.2 mile-long cave from July-November, the rainy season, but it was not supposed to be the rainy season quite yet. The cave system is in the Doi Nang Non mountain range and is called “the Mountain of the Sleeping Lady,” which it vaguely resembles, a woman laying on her back. As the rain continued, the porous limestone ground on top of the cave leaked water into the cave system itself, creating flooded chambers. As the chambers flooded, the Wild Boars were forced back deeper into the dark cave. After Coach Ek unsuccessfully tried to swim out, they eventually found themselves on a rock ledge, almost two and one half miles from the cave entrance, and no one knew they were there.
One man was looking for them, though. Wild Boars head coach Nopprat Kanthawong had checked his phone about 7 p.m. and found 20 missed calls, all from parents wondering where their kids were. He started calling every team number he had listed, until he reached a 13-year old Boar who got picked up after practice. He told the coach the rest of the team and Coach Ek were planning on biking to the cave and doing a little exploring. Nopprat sped up to the cave entrance and easily found their bikes and packs, but no Wild Boars. He did find lots of water in the cave and it was rising. Fearing the worst he immediately notified authorities.
Thus began an underground rescue operation that would eventually involve approximately 10,000 volunteers, including Thai Army and Special Forces, divers from around the globe, doctors, mining specialists, military and civilian rescue specialists from 38 different countries, from Ireland to India and just about everywhere in-between, with over 100 government agencies represented. Hundreds of media descended upon the rapidly growing base camp. Helicopters flew, ambulances hurried, and food trucks began to arrive. The Wild Boar families had been sent for and were being bedded down. The camp had everything but the kids. Nobody had found the Wild Boars yet. As each hour passed it was becoming harder to be overly optimistic about “the boys in the cave.”
The United States government, in all its power and might, is good at many things. Unfortunately, the government is also known for its levels of bureaucracy. As the requests for help went out, the US Embassy in Bangkok contacted their desk at the State Department in Washington DC, who then contacted the Department of Defense, also in Washington, who contacted Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), who notified Special Operations Command Pacific (SOCPAC), who immediately contacted an organization known to be quite good, and practiced, in moving quickly. Air Force Special Operations Command’s 353rd Special Operations Group, headquartered at Kadena AB, Okinawa, was told to prepare to deploy for rescue support. Less than 19 hours after SOCPAC was notified, the 353rd had rescuers inside the cave. They were joined by members of the 31st Rescue Squadron from the 18th Wing, host unit of Kadena. The approximately 40 personnel had flown into Chiang Mai airport on two of the 1st Special Operations Squadron’s MC-130J Commando II aircraft after receiving special permission to overfly the country of Vietnam. It was now early morning of June 28 and, aside from the team’s footprints leading into the cave, no one had found anything yet. The Wild Boars had been in the cave, unheard from, for nearly five days.
It was not from any lack of effort that nothing was found early on. The Thai authorities knew of a local man that could be of help. The first official diver to enter the cave was 63 year-old British expat Vernon Unsworth. As divine providence would have it Unsworth was an experienced cave diver, lived about an hour south of the cave entrance and had been planning to dive the Tham Luang Nang Nong system, with which he was already familiar, that very day. Unsworth advised the Thai government to contact the British Cave Rescue Council (BCRC). Hearing of the dilemma, the BCRC rushed three experienced cave divers to the cave , arriving one day before the 353rd. Thai Navy SEAL divers had been in the cave since June 25, but even using bright lighting the water was so murky it was impossible to operate. Sniffer dogs were used above the cave to try to find a crevasse where engineers could look at drilling down from above. Drones and robots would soon join them. It continued to rain.
The members of the 353rd arrived and went to work. However, they had to look at things realistically. The Wild Boars had not even been found yet. When they arrived at about 2 a.m. on the 28th, there was a trickle of water in one part of the cave. In one hour it had risen to two feet. Major Charles Hodges, a Citadel graduate from the 320th Special Tactics Squadron and the mission commander later said, “When we arrived it was worse than had been painted. I thought it was highly probable we would never find these kids.”
Special Tactics is not formally trained in cave diving rescues, but they are outstanding at planning difficult missions. Members of the 320th began working with the unit in charge, the Thai SEALS, to come up with an extraction plan if or when the Wild Boars were found; a plan that would have a chance of success without killing kids or rescuers. MSgt Derek Anderson of the 320th became a lead planner for the extraction. It was an all-international team effort but Anderson is generally given credit for drafting the plan that ended up successfully saving the kids. It involved a complicated scheme of dropping hundreds of necessary air tanks at various points to supply the Wild Boars and the extracting divers. That, and the guide rope system, was complicated, but it could work. The Air Force team of the 320th and the 31st had already examined the possibility of pumping water out and drilling down from above. Hodges contacted Chevron Oil in Bangkok and quickly found it unworkable, too complicated, and too lengthy.
Battling rising water and swift currents, two of the BCRC cave divers, Richard Staunton and John Volanthen, a Belgian cave diver and a French diver, Maksym Polejaka, began searching the cave and setting up guidelines for other divers. The rain continued to fall and the water rose. Operations had to be suspended until the weather improved. On July 2 Volanthen was setting guidelines and ran out of rope. He surfaced in a cave chamber and in the darkness smelled something… human. The Wild Boars had been found. They were weakened and confused, but passably healthy. Coach Ek had kept the kids calm, told them to drink the clearest water possible and had given the kids all of his food. Word was passed down the line. Thanks to those hundreds of media on site, the good news rocketed around the world. Hours later, seven Thai military personnel, including a doctor and a medic, made the extremely difficult trip to the Wild Boars, bringing medical supplies, high calorie food, and clean water. Four of the seven volunteered to stay with the Wild Boars for the duration. They would be the last to leave the cave. Now the real challenge began.
How were they going to get 12 kids and a coach, most of whom could not swim, and none with diving experience, out of a flooded cave two and a half miles back, with twist, turns, changes in elevation and some openings as small as 15 X 28 inches? It would take some of the best cave divers in the world five hours with the current, and six hours against it, just to get back and forth to the Wild Boar’s ledge. As the world rejoiced at the news the rescue experts took a real, deep sigh. This was going to be very, very dangerous.
“It’s zero visibility, it’s cold, and it’s far, far back into a cave. There were never any guarantees and I remember Major Hodges saying specifically there’s maybe a 60 percent chance of survivability. We were completely honest when briefing the Thai leadership that we were expecting casualties. Even though we did as much mission planning and rehearsals as possible, no one had ever done anything like this before.” said Anderson.
Alternatives were examined. A shaft was found that sank to 900 meters, but it was not enough. During the rescue operation over 100 shafts were drilled, but none were sufficient. There was serious consideration by the Thai government to constantly resupply the Wild Boars, wait months for the monsoon season to end and have them walk out. This would have meant an almost constant train of divers shuttling supplies back two and a half miles through a mostly flooded cave. You could almost guarantee casualties. Then there was the oxygen, or, more accurately, the lack thereof. On July 6, the oxygen level had dropped. By July 8, the oxygen level was less than normal and becoming dangerous. Engineers looked at the possibility of running an oxygen line back to the Wild Boar’s chamber but quickly deemed it next to impossible in the timeframe. The Thai government naturally wanted the safest possible extraction, just wait it out, but time was quickly evaporating.
“We were explaining it was time to fish or cut bait,” said Hodges.” If you don’t do something now the cave will make the decision for you. Five or six months from now, when the water recedes, we will be lucky to find remains.”
The experienced divers and Thai SEALS examined and contributed to MSgt Anderson’s plan. Cave divers would have to lead the Wild Boars out one at a time. Slowly, deliberately and carefully. Practice missions were already being run in a nearby pool and a rope system to get the divers accustomed to the size of the twist and turns had been put into place. Normally a mission this intricate would call for months of practice. There was no time.
As if to emphasize the danger, on July 6, a volunteer and former Thai Navy diver, Saman Kunan, died while helping deliver the almost endless need for fresh diving air tanks. It is often thought that Kunan was the only casualty in the rescue operation, but there were several injuries and another Thai SEAL diver, Beruit Pakbara, contracted blood poisoning while in the cave and died that December. On the same day Kunan died, oxygen levels on Wild Boar ledge dropped to 15 percent, down from the normal 21 percent and more rain was forecast. The plan had to be initiated and the rescue extraction had to be moved up.
At the same time, one member of the 353rd had an unexpected role. Capt Jessica Tait, the 353rd Public Affairs Officer, deployed to on-site as rescue support, unexpectedly found herself the face and voice of the rescue for the English-speaking public of the world. This was a little more complicated than at first glance. Tait had been sent with the 320th/31st initial package because the Thai Cave Rescue was already a world-wide story when they received orders. On the ground she became the focal point for the English speaking media, and was expected to arrange interviews and give updates for everyone. The possible sensitive issue of US heavy messaging and “taking credit” with an American military member speaking for a Thai-led operation was always discussed between the State Department, OSD/PA, and AFSOC/PA. Tait consistently emphasized this was a Thai operation and the United States, along with all the other nations, were in support. Apparently, she got that point across. The King of Thailand, Maha Vajiralongkorn, later asked to meet Tait and expressed his gratitude.
On July 8, the cave entrance was cleared and over 90 international divers, including those from the 320th Special Tactics Squadron, the 31st Rescue Squadron and US medical personnel were stationed along the staging areas deep inside the cave. The water was still so muddy that the support divers’ air regulators would often malfunction due to the mud buildup. All aspects of the plan had to be precise; there was no room for error. A team of 13 international cave divers and five Thai SEALS began their hours long journey back to the Wild Boars. The team included an Australian doctor, Richard Harris, who would administer the anesthetic Ketamine to render the boys going out of the cave unconscious. It had been decided that it was safer to guide them through the maze of muddy water, rocks, twists and small openings if they were unconscious and therefore would be no chance of them panicking and endangering both themselves and their rescuers. They were also given the anti-anxiety drugs Xanax and Atropine to steady their heart rates. The Ketamine was effective for 45 minutes to an hour, meaning the escorting divers, trained by Dr. Harris, had to re-administer a dose of Ketamine. The Thai government gave Dr. Harris and two of his assistants diplomatic immunity in case something went wrong. At various cave chambers they were quickly examined by medical personnel before being sent on.
The boys were dressed in wet suits, with positive pressure full face masks and a harness. Handles were attached to their backs to allow them to be “carried” in the water. They were also tethered to their escort. Divers at various points carefully pushed, pulled and lifted the boys, always careful not to bump their heads or masks on the ever-present jagged rocks. The escorting divers ensured their heads were always above the unconscious boys so if there was an unseen rock in the muddy water the divers would hit their head instead of the boys’.
“It wasn’t going to be an issue of visibility,” said Hodge. “Visibility was always going to be bad. They were kicking up so much silt that the concern was mud getting into the regulators. The guy in front would start and the guy behind him would have mud in his regulator.”
The trip was arduous on the divers. When the boys made it to a dry spot in the cave, they were met by three other divers, taken out of their dive gear and at one stop they had to be dragged on a stretcher approximately 600 feet across slippery rocks and wet sand hills to the next demarcation point. There they were medically examined, put back into their dive gear and sent on the next part of their journey. In Chamber 3 they were alternately carried and transported by zip line, installed by rock climbers, to the cave entrance. The route remained partially flooded and rescuers later recalled how tough that part of the journey proved. The first day that Chamber 3 section took five hours alone, though at the end, practice and improvements had reduced it to a little over one hour. At the cave entrance an ambulance awaited to take them to Changrai Prachanukfroh Hospital where doctors found the Wild Boars had lost, on average, approximately four and a half pounds apiece, but were generally in good shape. The boys wore sunglasses while their eyes readjusted to light and were checked for any infections.
How was it decided who would go first? They considered youngest to oldest or the weakest to strongest. Actually, Coach Ek said the boys were all “still strong,” mentally and physically. Then they left it to the Wild Boars themselves to decide who went first. After talking they reasoned the boys living farthest away from the cave should go first. They could ride their bikes and tell everyone where the others were and would be coming out shortly. They had a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact the world was watching and nobody was going to let them bike ride off into the sunset. A decision was reached by the on-site Thai divers and the first four were quickly prepared.
That first day four boys were taken from the cave. The rescuers knew that they would need 10-20 hours to resupply the cave route with air tanks, medical equipment and other supplies. For once the weather had cooperated—it had stopped raining. That, and efficiencies cut down the amount of time it took to transport the kids the required two and a half miles. However, it remained a tough go.
On July 9, four more Wild Boars were rescued. The weather, and the luck held. Again, the difficult and still dangerous procedure of resupply had to be accomplished. The cave had proven several times it was unforgiving of mistakes. On July 10, the remaining four Wild Boars left the cave, along with Coach Ek. Mission accomplished? Well, the Wild Boars had been saved but approximately 100 divers, volunteers, and medical personnel remained in the flooded cave, most almost a mile back, with a few even farther from the entrance. The cave rescue was not done.
Almost immediately after the last ambulance left, water began rapidly rising in Chamber 3. It is thought the main water line, pumping water out of the cave, had broken. Pumps had been installed early on to help bring down the water in the cave. With all the rain the pumps were never expected to be the final solution. However, the pumps had removed the equivalent of 400 Olympic-sized pools of water and with the short dry spell had actually made a little progress in the water levels. As soon as the kids and Coach EK left the cave, the pumps stopped and water rose rapidly. The codeword for “drop everything and get out” was issued. Air tanks, equipment, all of it had to be abandoned. Workers and divers moved in an orderly way, but quickly, for the entrance. They began to work against the advancing water. By the time the Thai divers, deepest in the cave when the pumps broke, made their way to the entrance, only about an 18 inch air pocket remained. Everyone was out.
Looking back, it probably should not have worked as well as it did. Everyone on the inside expected casualties, but that did not happen. They were justifiably proud, but it took a little while.
“The actual core of rescuers, were all kind of exhausted, but kind of in awe that we had pulled this off over a three-day period. Everyone was pretty quiet, just rinsing off our gear. The very next day the hotel had a dinner for us and we were able to relax a little bit and take in what had just happened,” said Anderson.
What had happened had some interesting side notes. The oldest of the Wild Boars, Phiraphat Samphianghai, turned 17 years old while in the cave. In fact, while the world literally came together to rescue them, four of the Wild Boars and Coach Ek had no country to call their own. Belonging to tribes that extended across the borders of Thailand, Laos, China and Myanmar, they were considered technically “stateless,” and could not be issued a passport or technically be allowed to leave the Chiang Rai providence. The team had run into past difficulties when playing outside of Chiang Rai. After the rescue the four “stateless” Wild Boars and Coach Ek were officially made Thai citizens.
Was Coach Ek held responsible by the parents and an army of lawyers for leading the Wild Boar youths into the cave? Not at all. The parents forgave Coach Ek and actually showed appreciation for all he did while spending two weeks with their boys, in a dark and flooded cave. The Thai cultural outlook is both forgiving and graceful.
Many people like hearing or reading about the rescue. It was a time when the world literally came together to help the helpless. China had sent two teams, with robots and a 3D imager, to work alongside Americans. The Czech government had tried to deploy four large water pumps, but the ground was found to be too unstable. Space-X CEO Elon Musk had his engineers design a “kid-sized submarine”, but it was deemed too impractical. Musk then got into a somewhat bizarre feud with one of the Australian divers, but at least he tried to contribute. In all, best-selling books were written, documentaries were produced and at the time of this writing a large-scale movie, directed by Ron Howard and starring Viggo Mortenson, Colin Farrell, and Joel Eggerton is currently shooting. It is to be entitled 13 Lives.
The “Quiet Professionals” from the 353rd? They gathered what equipment they could, made their way back to the airport and boarded their MC-130Js, tired and relieved. The flight back to Kadena would take a bit longer because the country of Vietnam had denied their overflight. Vietnam’s rationale was “The crisis is now over.”
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