Friday, January 18, 2019

Entombed! Thai Cave Rescue. Book by Liam Cochrane

ENTOMBED! Twelve schoolboys trapped deep inside a flooding cave in a drama that gripped the world - as relived in new book by reporter who witnessed every moment
  • The Wild Boars football team and their coach were freed from a Thai cave 
  • The Thai football club had been trapped underground for the past two weeks 
  • They were all brought out in a daring rescue mission that ended on July 10, 2018 


11 January 2019

Australian journalist LIAM COCHRANE covered last year’s dramatic cave rescue of schoolboys in Thailand. Here, he reconstructs the gripping events that had the world on the edge of its seat, praying for a miracle to save a dozen soccer-mad boys and their coach from disaster.

The boys of the Wild Boars Academy Football Club were in high spirits as they trekked up the small rise to the entrance of the cave.

They sang songs and playfully flashed at each other the torches they had brought for what was intended to be an hour or so of exploring the cathedral-like chambers with their glistening stalagmites and stalactites.

One of them noticed a faded old sign on the cliff wall. In Thai and English, it read: ‘DANGER! FROM JULY–NOVEMBER THE CAVE IS FLOODED. NO ENTRY!’

That’s OK, they decided. It was late June. The dangerous period hadn’t yet begun.

Still laughing and joking, they made their way inside.

And so began a drama that for two agonising weeks last year would dominate headlines around the globe and grip the watching world in anxiety. Twelve boys and their soccer coach went into that cave, but would any of them come out alive?

The caves had always been a place of mystery and mysticism.

Ask any local in that far-distant area of northern Thailand the secret of Doi Nang Non — the Mountain of the Sleeping Lady — and they will tell you the tale of a beautiful princess who fell in love with a commoner, a stable-boy.

Their love was forbidden, but the princess didn’t care and became pregnant. The couple ran away, seeking refuge in a cave. But when the stable-boy went to find food, he was captured by the soldiers and killed. The princess was so distraught, she stabbed herself.

According to the legend, her fallen body became the mountain, her blood the water that flows through the caves during the wet season.

The porous limestone of the mountain allows the frequent drenching monsoons to soak through, eroding underground fissures into cracks, pockets, ledges and caves and creating passages.

Inside is a dark and deep netherworld where black crickets burrow under rocks, entirely normal, save for the fact they have no eyes.

The caves are a natural playground for local children — places of daring adventure.

Which is why the Wild Boars came there on June 23 after Saturday morning football practice in their home town of Mae Sae nearby. They were led by their 25-year-old soccer coach Ekapol Chantawong, a quiet, fit, devout Buddhist who had previously been a monk.

He was in charge of the under-13s team, but his regular after-practice excursions to go cycling, swimming or exploring made him popular with players of all ages. The boys adored him, and called him Pee Ek, or Older Brother Ek.

He’d told them about how he’d been in the cave before, and they asked him to take them there.

After soccer training, they ate snacks from a local kiosk — grilled pork skewers with sticky rice, crisps and soft drinks — and then rode their bikes to the cave.

The entrance was huge, the size of a hangar, but its walls quickly funnelled in towards the first narrow passageway. The boys — most still in their red football tops and shorts — leaned their bikes against a handrail at the top of stairs cut into the slippery wet dirt, exchanged their football boots for slip-on sandals and continued.

They walked down the steps, still boisterous, shining their torches around the limestone walls as their eyes adjusted to the dark. They were excited, not scared.

The first 800 yards were an easy walk, until they came to a sign warning ‘Difficult’, which marked the start of a series of boulder collapses, choke-points and chambers. Further in they went, the air getting cooler with each step, to a semi-flooded tunnel that had to be waded through.

The boys ventured on until they reached a T-junction in the cave and turned left. Water was pooled here and some took off their sandals. The route took them to a big chamber with a sandy bank, known as Pattaya Beach.

From there, they eventually reached a flooded passage but with enough headroom for them to swim through. ‘Do we want to go further?’ asked Coach Ek.

They were two and a half miles into the cave by now but the boys were keen to push on, knowing they would earn some serious bragging rights if they could walk right to the end — another four miles ahead — and scrawl their names on the back wall.

As the oldest and tallest, 16-year-old Tee volunteered to head into the flooded tunnel and check the depth. He could touch the bottom, so the group waded into the cold water, the smaller boys riding on the backs of the taller ones. They pushed on, swimming, walking if they could, to another dry spot.

There, Coach Ek saw the path ahead was blocked by mud.

‘Should we go back now?’ he asked, and they agreed they should.

They swam back through the sump, passed through Pattaya Beach and had almost reached the T-junction when the boy at the front shouted: ‘There’s water!’

What had been a small pool just two hours earlier now filled the passage completely, blocking their way out.

To check just how stuck they were, Coach Ek tied a rope around his body, which the boys held onto, then, holding his breath, dived into the water. He discovered the tunnel was blocked by sand and stone; there was no way through. He gave two tugs on the rope as a signal and the boys heaved him back.

When he told them the way ahead was blocked, they looked at each other a little nervously before telling themselves to ‘get a grip, be cool, don’t be frightened’. Ek set them to work scooping out mud.

From the other side of the blockage, they suddenly heard whistles and the faint muffled sounds of shouting. They shouted back, but couldn’t tell if those on the other side could hear. They dug for a while longer, but it was no use. The water, sand and stones had sealed their exit shut, trapping them.

Back in town darkness was falling, along with heavy rain, and parents were beginning to get concerned that their sons had not returned.

In one home, an ice-cream cake with the number 16 iced on top was cooling inside the freezer, waiting to be taken out for the lad’s birthday party that evening.

Word went round that the boys had gone to the cave, and a handful of parents headed there. They ran into three rangers from the Department of National Parks, one of whom was crying. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she sobbed. ‘I couldn’t help them. The water trapped them.’

The rangers explained that they had seen the bicycles left at the entrance and were worried about flooding because it had started to rain heavily.

They went into the cave as far as the T-junction, but could go no further. They had found some discarded slip-on sandals along the way. They shouted and blew whistles, but heard no reply over the sound of rushing water.

The rangers tried to be reassuring: ‘Don’t worry — whenever anyone gets trapped in these caves, they always survive. There’s high land and water to drink.’ By now, word about the missing soccer team was spreading fast.

Emergency services were on the way and it was on the television news. At least one parent heard about the situation his son was in by turning on the TV and seeing pictures of the boys’ bicycles leaning in a row at the cave entrance.

The father of Titan — at 11, the youngest of the boys — raced to the mountain. He paused to place his palms together in prayer at a shrine to Princess Nang before surveying the scene — the cave mouth lit up by an industrial floodlight and the area swarming with police and soldiers. The search was escalating into a major incident and a race against time.

Inside the mountain, the boys were exhausted from digging. They walked back the way they’d come from the blocked T-junction to a chamber and lay down on the sandy slope.

They were hungry and thirsty. They had no water or food with them and had last eaten hours ago at the football pitch.

But they were resolute.

‘At that stage, we were not at all afraid,’ said Coach Ek. ‘We thought the water would go down by the next day. Before going to sleep, I asked everyone to pray to Lord Buddha.’ In a low monotone, the boys chanted a prayer before turning off their torches — all except one, which was jammed and wouldn’t turn off.

They went to sleep with its light reflecting off the calcite crystals on the roof, creating white sparkles that looked to the boys like stars in the night sky.

Outside, the rescue was being led by Navy SEALS from the Royal Thai Special Warfare Command. The country’s most fearsome warriors, they were supremely fit, highly trained and dedicated to their often-secret missions.

Dispatched on the orders of the King, they arrived before dawn on Monday morning — 36 hours or so since the boys had first gone into the cave — and went straight in, ready to dive if necessary.

But when they reached the T-junction, the conditions they faced were something completely new to them — a churning brown pond and zero visibility. Everything had to be done by touch.

The 11th boy to have been rescued was reportedly 11-year-old Chanin Wiboonrungruang (second left), whose nickname is Titan

Their standard scuba rigs were clumsy in the confined spaces, with the air tanks and hoses on their backs in danger of being torn off or becoming tangled. The torrent of water rushing through the cave could rip off their masks.

They were putting their lives at great risk but bravely they battled on, scraping and hacking underwater with shovels and by hand until they forced a way through into a big chamber. But the boys were nowhere to be seen.

The next restriction was even tougher, and, smashed by the oncoming water, they had no choice but to turn back. The current swept them back along the rocky passageways and spat them out at the T-junction.

The problem was that the SEALS were experienced divers but none of them had the special expertise of cave divers.

Experts, however, were beginning to answer the call for help — men such as 63-year-old Englishman Vernon Unsworth.

He lived in the area and, with his Thai caving buddy, Lak, had the best working knowledge of the labyrinth under the Mountain of the Sleeping Lady of anyone. A call from the National Park had him grabbing his blue helmet and caving lamp and rushing to the cave.

He and Lak headed inside as far as the T-junction.

‘You could see the water getting higher and higher,’ he recalled. It wasn’t up to the roof yet, but his experience told him the situation was only going to get worse.

He tried putting down sandbags to stop the flow from a side tunnel but the torrent just pushed them away. He worked on, but to no avail. The junction stayed blocked.

Desperation was now seizing the parents.

A scream of anguish and desperation from Titan’s mum echoed off the rock walls: ‘My son, come out. I am waiting for you here,’ she pleaded.

Another mother cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled into the tunnel: ‘Please hurry up and come home, my son.’

Titan’s father went into the cave to help with the search. He was tough and fit but immediately the cold got to him and he found itdifficult to breathe.

Near to the T-junction, he and others began to dig, trying to drain water away and keep the tunnel open. Ahead, the water made a deafening sound as it flowed in from two directions and collided at the junction, every minute thickening the door of mud and rocks that sealed off the rescuers from Pattaya Beach, where the SEALS thought the trapped boys probably were.

He dug until, exhausted, he had to stop. Sitting there in the mud, his hope sank. He was mentally preparing himself for the prospect that his son would die. In his mind, the best he could hope for was the closure of finding his corpse.

By their fourth day trapped underground, the boys had passed the point where hunger hurts. They were managing to drink fresh water dripping from the walls as they continued to search for other ways out. Coach Ek felt a responsibility to keep them calm.

Instead of talking about being stuck, he focused on the hope they’d be out soon. They had heard whistles and shouts on the first night, so that proved someone was trying to save them.

Each night, they would say a Thai Buddhist prayer together. It was one the boys all knew, equivalent to ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ for Christians. The low-voiced chanting and the familiar ritual were reassuring.

But the rain kept falling and the water rising. The chamber they were in had so far provided a sanctuary but for how much longer?

They decided they had to seek higher ground and set off even deeper into the cave complex.

After a while, they came to a section of dry tunnel that was noticeably warmer and made their bed there for the night.

But the next morning, the water was still rising, as if it was chasing them ever further inside the mountain. They walked on and came to a steep bank that went back more than 20 yards and would give them space if the water kept coming.

Importantly, clean water was dripping like a tap from two rounded white stalactites hanging down from the roof, giving the chamber its nickname — Mound of the Young Woman’s Breasts.

Settling into their new home, they found that the cave wall at the back was dirt, not rock. This gave them hope that maybe there was something behind it. A secret chamber? A way out?

‘We weren’t bored’, 14-year-old Biw said later. ‘We were too busy digging. We woke up at 6am every day because 16-year-old Tee’s watch had an alarm set for 6am and noon. Those that had strength would dig first, then the second shift would take over.

‘We had to try to get out. Otherwise when the rescuers came, they’d think we did nothing.’

Meanwhile, the operation to get them out was growing to unprecedented proportions.

Experts were flying in from Britain, the U.S., Australia and China and millions of people around the world were glued to their TV sets.

But even the world’s top cavers were helpless in the face of the floodwater, now rising 4in every hour. The SEALS continued to hack away at the underground obstructions but stirred up the mud so much that the divers could only monitor their wrist-mounted dive computers by pressing them right up against their masks.

It was tough, frustrating work fighting the water, and they were losing the battle.

Supplies poured in from around the world — air tanks, compressors, lights, helmets, rope.

So did people. Out of the blue, eight climbers arrived from the deep south of Thailand — men who every day swarmed up and down cliffs and caves on ropes to collect small nests built by swifts.

They sold them to the Chinese for bird’s nest soup, a delicacy claimed to have medicinal powers for anything from curing asthma to raising libido.

They trekked to the top of the mountain to look for shafts and fissures, then dropped down into them on ropes in the hope of finding a back route into the cave complex. It was dangerous work. They used no safety equipment, and if the rope had broken or a knot slipped, they might have fallen to their deaths.

Thousands of soldiers and volunteers were also on the hillside, to dig channels, dam streams and haul pipes up the mountain for drainage systems.

Everything and anything was being tried. A groundwater scientist argued that all the underground aquifers probably connected and got the go-ahead to drain water from a different cave in the hope of reducing the levels.

Yet still the water was winning.

Just before dawn on the fifth day, a huge downpour began and the water level inside the cave rose 6in in an hour. The rescuers who had started at the T-junction a few days earlier were now forced back further, away from the trapped boys.

This retreat was a serious blow to morale. Conditions were now so dangerous that the SEALS suspended all diving. With more rain falling, it was reckoned that the cave was about to flood all the way to the entrance. All those inside were evacuated as a matter of urgency.

Inside the mountain, the boys and their coach were still trying to find their own way out. As well as digging away at the back wall, they also mounted exploration missions through the partly flooded passageways.

But even with their torches, the geography inside the cave could be confusing. ‘The scenery changed,’ said Biw. ‘We’d swim and find three slopes, then the next time we went there were four.’

He was walking along a passage he’d explored the day before when suddenly there was a huge drop, straight down, with water below. It wasn’t there the previous day.

They had a meeting to talk about their options.

They could just stay there and hope someone found them in time. Or they could try to go further into the cave and hope to find another way out. But trying to wade through the next sump and push further into the cave was a gamble.

‘If we find an exit, we will survive,’ said Coach Ek. ‘But if we don’t that means we are trapped by two sets of obstructions.’

At that moment, they heard the sound of water flowing. Ek shone his torch down to the bottom of the bank and they saw that the water was rising more quickly than ever.

Saved! All 12 players, pictured from top left clockwise, Adul Sam-on, 14, Panumas Saengdee, 13, Sompong Jaiwong, 13, Ekkarat Wongsookchan, 14, Pipat Bodhi, 15, Peerapat Sompiangjai, 16, Pornchai Kamluang, 16, Prajak Sutham, 14, Chanin Wiboonrungrueng, 11, Mongkol Boonpiam, 14, Nattawut 'Tle' Takamsai, 14 and Duangpetch Promthep, 13

In less than an hour, the water rose 9ft and the sump they were considering wading through was sealed shut. The decision had been made for them. ‘It was clear that we couldn’t go anywhere. We’d just have to wait until the authorities found us.’

But they wouldn’t sit idle. They would keep digging.

Biw said: ‘We knew there was an orange farm behind the mountain and we hoped we might see it.’ He was right about the farm. What he didn’t realise was that there was at least a third of a mile of rock between them and the oranges.

But digging gave them something to do with their days. And it gave them hope. Those who felt strong enough would fill their stomachs with water to keep the hunger pangs at bay and head up the slope to scrape away.

Some of the holes went a long way in but they always hit hard rock eventually. The boys were not fazed, though; they kept at it, working in shifts, dreaming of that orange orchard outside.

Coach Ek, though, was starting to get seriously spooked. ‘The most worrying things were the water, the darkness and the hunger. The water kept rising all the time, the darkness limited our awareness and hunger could cause conflict with each other.’

A very dark thought entered his mind.

‘Imagine if all this led to eating your friends, eating your own people.’

He laughed at the paranoia that had seeped into the dank cave. It must never come to that. Help would come if they remained patient and stayed alive.

ENTOMBED! The 12 schoolboys trapped in a Thai cave were desperate, hallucinating and slowly starving when they were found after 10 days - but their joy was short-lived as two British divers battled to get them out alive
  • The boys in the Thai cave disaster went missing in a flooded cavern last June
  • But beyond all odds, two British divers managed to make contact with them
  • As the second extract of book by Liam Cochrane reveals, the joy was short-lived


13 January 2019

When the boys of a Thai football team went missing in a flooded cave last June, an anxious world watched and waited.

In this second extract from his gripping account of the rescue, investigative reporter LIAM COCHRANE describes how the race against time seemed lost.

But then a miracle happened...

The mums and dads were losing faith. When the boys and their football coach went missing in the Tham Luang cave on Saturday afternoon, doctors had told them not to worry — people could survive for days without food, as long as they had water, which the boys did.

But now it was Wednesday, Day Five. Doubts were growing. Were their boys still alive? For 16-year-old Night's dad, this was when his hope started to waver.

It was hard not to imagine their weak little bodies wasting away in the darkness. What were they doing? Were they scared? How long could they survive?

The father of Biw had already felt despair after going into the flooded cave to help with the rescue, feeling the chill of the thin underground air and seeing the water rushing relentlessly in. But he was determined to at least bring his son's body home for a funeral.

For the rescuers, conditions were not improving. The SEALs of the Thai Navy's Special Forces heading the operation set their sights on at least getting to the T-junction — a crucial landmark a mile or so inside the complex cave system that snaked through the mountain.

But they barely made 100 yards. The strong current, somewhere between a fast-moving river and white-water rapids, drove them back. With all the mud and debris in the churning water, one diver likened it to swimming in 'a whirlpool of cafe latte'.

Ben Reymenants, a Belgian who ran a diving school in the town of Phuket, went in with a guide line of thick rope to attach to the walls and haul himself along. He inched forward, buffeted this way and that, trying not to bump too hard into the jagged walls and overhangs.

In narrow parts of the flooded space, he got stuck. The dive computer on his wrist broke. His helmet was battered against the wall. He managed to lay about 100 metres of line, but eventually conditions became too much.

'It was beyond my personal limits,' he said. 'Just too many red flags — can't see, got entangled in a restriction, down currents, broken computer.

'And there's no guarantee the kids are alive, there's no guarantee they are where we think they are, so it's a double speculation. You're risking your life for an if...'

There was also a gloomy feeling among the British specialist cave divers, who'd arrived to take part. Having seen how quickly the cave had flooded, they seriously doubted that the 12 boys of the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach could still be alive.

Yet no one was prepared to give up. The urge everyone felt to rescue them was too strong. Thousands of people were now involved in the international operation, backed by volunteers.

Food trucks, including mobile kitchens sent by the King of Thailand from his palace, served 20,000 hot meals a day. Giant vats of curry were stirred with cricket stump-sized ladles.

Rescuers had their pick of batteries, socks, underwear, painkillers, balms, soap, sweets. Next to the medical tent, masseuses gave free neck rubs to relieve stress. Hairdressers offered to cut hair.

Off site, more generosity went largely unseen. Hotels, resorts and village homes opened their doors for the rescue teams, providing accommodation, meals and washing clothes, also for free.

Flagging morale among the Thais was revived when a revered Buddhist monk came, meditated at the cave entrance and appealed to the spirits of the Mountain of the Sleeping Lady to let the boys out.

He declared: 'Don't worry — in a day or two the children will come out'. When the parents heard the prediction, their hopes rose again.

But the best omen of all was that the monsoon that caused the flooding had stopped and the divers could get back in the cave. Meanwhile, on the mountain, drilling teams set up machinery to bore holes, down which a microphone could be dropped to listen for life.

They could only make an educated guess as to where in the cave complex the boys might be.

But at the very least, they argued, they would make a racket with their drills, and the sound would vibrate and echo through the porous limestone. This would send a message to the Wild Boars that help was coming. 'If I was in the dark for six days,' an engineer explained, 'I imagine I might lose hope, so we drilled to make noise and keep the kids hopeful.'

And indeed, inside the cave, amid the constant dripping of water and the thuds and scrapes of their digging, sometimes the boys did hear sounds. One day, Titan thought he heard a helicopter. Biw heard a rooster crow. Another time, a dog barked — they all heard that one.

Where were the sounds coming from? Were their minds playing tricks on them? Some of the noises gave them hope, but others scared them. On the ledge deep inside the mountain, 'sometimes we heard people's voices talking at the bottom of the mound but we didn't see anyone there,' said Biw.

Even more frightening was the unnerving sound of someone calling their names. It summoned up Thai horror stories of ghosts. 'Coach Ek told us that if we hear somebody call our names at night, don't answer,' said Biw.

There, inside the cave, time was running out, literally. Of the three watches the boys went in with, only one was still working but it at least enabled them to have some kind of routine in the darkness.

In the morning, they would fill their stomachs with the water running off the stalactites and then head to the top of the slope to dig at the back, in the hope of finding a route out. When 16-year-old Tee's watch told them it was night, they lay down on the hard dirt to sleep.

It wasn't comfortable, and they found themselves constantly slipping down the slope.

When they slept it was usually in short snatches.

But there was something else that kept them awake at night. Even at home, Titan, at 11 the youngest, was a restless sleeper who would sometimes sleepwalk to the toilet. In the cave it was worse. He talked and shouted in his sleep, keeping the others awake.

Sometimes he would even jump up, still fast asleep, which was annoying but also potentially deadly. If he wandered off, he might hit his head or fall into the water. So every night, Coach Ek would hold on to him, sleeping lightly, wary his youngest player might dream himself to death.

They still had working torches, but they rationed the light, knowing it could be many more days until they were found. Most of the time they were in a darkness so profound it felt like a physical substance, oozing around their bodies. It started to get into the boys' subconscious minds. One night, Dom dreamed he was being chased by a black tiger. Another time Titan thought Coach Ek was a warrior chasing him with a sword.

The line between sleep and wakefulness was often unclear in that darkness and all the more terrifying.

As the days dragged on, all of the boys had moments of despair and shed some tears. But Note wept more than the others. He simply didn't think they were going to get out alive. On July 1 it was his 15th birthday but there wasn't much to celebrate. They were alive, but for how much longer?

After nine days, they were inching closer towards death, their bodies wasting away, their cheeks hollow, their skin grey. With no food to turn into energy, their bodies' normal chemical processes slowed and then shifted, seeking sustenance elsewhere. The protein in their muscles was broken down into glucose, their fat turned into fatty acids and ketone. To fuel the life-giving fundamentals, their bodies were consuming them from the inside.

The heart must keep pumping blood. The brain must keep thinking. They must stay calm, conserve their energy. They must survive.

For the rescuers outside, Sunday, July 1, brought a lucky break. The weather was easing. There had been no substantial rain for the past 36 hours. That afternoon, yellow measuring sticks at various points within the cave showed the water level dropping.

With the cave still flooded, but the flow becoming more manageable, foreign dive instructors based in Thailand volunteered to go back in to lay down hundreds of yards of guide ropes through the flooded passages, tying them to stalactites and rocks as they edged once again towards the T-junction.

Experienced British divers John Volanthen and Rick Stanton joined them. Visibility was still poor and diving blind put them on edge. When they bumped into any object in the water they half expected it to be a body. They were constantly bracing themselves for the worst.

But they were making progress and eventually battled their way through the cave to the T-junction. There was real hope at last.

For the parents outside, though, the mood had turned grim again. Ten days had now gone by. It was too long. They were all miserable and exhausted, stuck in a gut-wrenching place somewhere between doubt and grief.

A doctor reckoned that, after ten days without food, the chance of a child surviving was down to 10 per cent. Even those optimists in charge of the operation were wondering if it was time to switch from a rescue strategy to a recovery one. That would be a different dynamic. A rescue operation involved pushing the limits of safety and putting lives on the line for someone else's. The retrieval of bodies would be a slower effort, performed with care so as not to lose any more lives.

On the other hand, the boys and the coach might still be alive. They'd give it another day. This was still a rescue effort. Just.

That night, it rained again, but the pumps installed in the cave did their job. The water didn't rise. The levels were finally under control. The divers pushed further on into the cave. The precise location of the Wild Boars was still a guess.

Along the way though there were scattered clues such as muddy handprints on the cave wall that seemed to indicate they had turned left at the T-junction and were probably somewhere near a cavern known as Pattaya Beach.

But what state would they be in? Would they even be alive?

John Volanthen and Rick Stanton now started from the T-junction, laying guide ropes as they went, until they came to a diamond-shaped pinch-point. They swam through it, jamming their fingers into the silt to crawl forward against the current.

They reached a big sandy slope and came up for air. They had reached Pattaya Beach — the chamber where everyone expected the boys to have holed up.

But the ledge was empty. No one was there.

Having used a third of their air supply already, they should by rights have turned back, but they made a calculated decision to dig into their reserves of air and keep going. With time running out, they were determined to go as far as humanly possible that day.

The boys had been trapped for ten days without food. The idea of stopping just short of them was preposterous, thought John. The two divers pushed on with a sense of determination, but also with dread. 'I was absolutely expecting to find bodies in the water floating towards me,' said John.

As they entered each new sump, they had little idea what was in store. Would it be a mere puddle or a long, flooded chamber? Would it be blocked with rocks, stalactites, debris or corpses?

Navigation was difficult in the murky passages and they made slow progress for 350 yards until they came to a room-sized chamber and surfaced. There was nothing on the steep muddy bank so they dived again and went on.

On the next ledge along, 11-year-old Titan, the youngest of the Wild Boars, was fading, his tiny body wasting away. 'I felt faint, I lacked energy and I was hungry,' he recalled. He was thinking about home-cooked food.

Food fantasies played on the boys' minds constantly. It had been about 245 hours since any of them had eaten. Their faces were gaunt, their cheekbones protruding.

Their decline was not just physical. As another day passed, their spirits were fading, too.

'We were losing patience, hope, physical energy and courage. We could not do anything to help. The only thing that I could do was pray,' said Adul, the only Christian of the group.

For the team's captain Dom, tomorrow would be his 14th birthday. He rallied the boys and urged them to keep digging to break through the back wall and find a way out of the cave. He didn't know it, but his birthday present was about to come early.

At around 8pm, the boys and Coach Ek were up on the ledge, some digging, others resting. 'At that moment, I heard people talking,' said Adul.

They all froze in the darkness, straining to hear and fearing their minds were playing tricks on them. Adul grabbed a torch and took off down the slope as fast as his weak body would carry him.

As he got to the edge, his legs went from under him and he slid into the water. He clambered back on the ledge, looked behind him at the water and saw, to his amazement, two men in diving gear.

'It was a miracle moment,' he remembered. 'I realised they were British and so I just said hello.'

By this stage, the rest of the team had scrambled to the edge.

From the water, Rick Stanton counted them as they came down. As he scanned his torch across their faces, he saw they were all there. 'Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,' the boys chorused at him.

Adul and Biw, the only two English speakers, translated for the others. Adul asked, 'When will we go outside?' and John had to explain that it would not be today. But many people would come to rescue them, he promised. 'We are just the first.'

The British divers hauled themselves onto the opposite bank, but to begin with stayed separated from the boys by a channel of water.

It was a deliberate precaution. They had no idea what state of mind the boys and Coach Ek would be in. They feared that, starving and desperate, they might to try to rush them and grab their diving gear to escape. But after a few minutes, they quickly realised the 13 were calm and posed no threat.

For the next 40 minutes, John and Rick sat with the Wild Boars on their ledge. To raise the kids' spirits, they asked them to cheer for the camera — a cheer for Thailand, a cheer for America, another for the UK, and on it went.

The boys' physical condition was remarkably good. They were gaunt but uninjured and didn't appear sick. They even managed to smile, though when they did their teeth looked oversized in their pinched faces,

'We're hungry,' a boy pleaded. 'We have to eat, eat, eat!' The divers hadn't brought any food with them but promised they would send the SEALs in with supplies as soon as possible.

Lowering themselves back into the water, they said farewell, and started back through the sump.

Carried by the current, their journey back was quicker and slightly less arduous than it had been going.

News of the boys being found alive had been messaged ahead of them and reached the world before they even got to the cave entrance. All around there were cheers and tears of joy. It seemed the impossible had come true.

The priority now was to get back to them with food and medical supplies as soon as possible. The Thais took control and an army doctor, Dr Pak, and three SEALs headed into the cave.

It was a difficult journey for them, still having to battle against the current. They were not trained cave divers, the water was cold and the dive long. They suffered from cramps and were forced to rest before eventually making it to the ledge. There they reassured the boys they would remain with them as long as needed — even if that meant waiting half a year, until the cave drained.

Dr Pak got to work, getting some energy and nutrients into the boys' systems without overloading them. Their small bodies were in life-support mode, slowly breaking down the fat and muscle to supply a trickle of energy, enough to keep the heart pumping and the lungs expanding.

Many of the body's chemical processes had stopped, changed or reversed.

They were at risk of what doctors call re-feeding syndrome — the point of starvation at which too much food too soon could kill them.

A sudden rush of glucose would overload the system, sending their phosphate, potassium and magnesium levels into chaos. The result could be delirium, seizures, respiratory failure, heart failure, coma or even death.

Although the boys were hungry and longed for rich pork and fast food, they had to be patient. The rescuers had brought little squeezy packets of high-energy gels. These tiny shots of life would have to suffice for now, gradually bringing their bodies back from the brink.

Generally their condition was surprisingly good. The doctor examined them and found no serious injuries. They needed medical care, but not urgently.

He applied antiseptic solution to the boys' scratches. 'This will kill the infection,' he told one boy, as he swabbed his foot.

'Then once you are out, we will find you a beautiful nurse.'

In the outside world, the joy of finding the team alive was the biggest news story on the planet.

Millions of people joined in the relief and celebrated their survival. But for those responsible for getting the boys and their soccer coach out, the unalloyed pleasure didn't last long.

After the news had sunk in, it was replaced by the realisation of how deep inside the mountain the boys were, and how hard it was going to be to bring them back to the surface.

People had been rescued from caves, but never had such a difficult set of problems faced a rescue party — the children's ages; their malnourished state; the long, flooded route out; the uncertainty of the weather.

In an ideal world, the teams would be able to suck enough water out of the sumps for the Wild Boars to wade out the way they walked in.

But this wasn't viable — some of the passages were 15ft deep, and more rain was coming.

The cautious solution was to wait. The boys and Coach Ek had energy gels, medicine and company.

Perhaps they should camp on that muddy bank for the next four to six months, until the rains stopped and the passages drained.

The riskiest option was to try to dive them out.

The Wild Boars could all swim, but none had ever scuba dived. Even for a competent recreational diver, the way out was treacherous. For a non-diver, it would be almost impossible.

All options were on the table, and all were bad.

The world was told the 12 Thai cave boys would swim to freedom but that was a LIE to soothe their parents - as a new book reveals how they were drugged and handcuffed before they were rescued
  • Discovery of missing Thai boys, alive and well, was headline news everywhere
  • However, getting the 12 boys and their coach out required superhuman courage 
  • The third extract of book by Liam Cochrane concludes his account of the rescue


14 January 2019

It was the biggest news story on the planet — the discovery by two British divers of the missing boys from a Thai football team, alive and well, after ten days trapped deep underground by floodwater.

But to get the 12 boys and their coach out alive would require superhuman courage tied to innovative technical expertise.

In the third and final part of our gripping series, investigative reporter LIAM COCHRANE concludes his account of the miracle rescue...

Once they had been located in their dark, subterranean cave, the spirits of the entombed boys of the Wild Boars football team and their coach soared.

They now had food and medical care, but most of all they had the company of Dr Pak and three SEALs from Thai Special Forces. They were no longer alone. After the long days of isolation, the camaraderie the military men brought to the cave was a blessing.

The boys — whose lives for the past 10 days had consisted almost entirely of digging, sleeping and fretting — played games. The SEALs showed them how to carve out a giant chess board on the ground with their diving knives and make pieces out of mud.

They played for hours in the lamplight, zig-zagging across the board to the back row to earn a king, capturing the enemy’s pieces along the way. The loser was the one who ran out of options, their final piece trapped.

It was a curiously apt game, given the frantic discussions that were going on in the outside world about how exactly to get them out alive. There, those in charge of the massive international rescue operation were quickly running out of options.

Waiting until the floodwaters receded was one plan that was seriously considered, but time was against this. Oxygen levels were falling in the confined space of the cave and killer carbon dioxide building up.

The next big rains were also forecast to hit in a few days, and these could be a death sentence. The cave system would refill with raging torrents of water and no one would be able to get in or out.

They needed to act now, and the only course of action left was the riskiest of all — diving the boys out. One expert put it starkly to those running the rescue: ‘If we dive now, some might die; but if we don’t dive, everybody will die and we’re just going to collect 13 bodies.’

To calm nerves, the parents were told the boys were being taught how to dive and the media reported that each of them would be tethered to an air hose and then swim out with one rescue diver in front and another behind. This was untrue.

Those who’d been inside the flooded tunnels knew there was no way a child who had never dived before could make it through the muddy and treacherous obstacle course. The only hope was to sedate them, put oxygen-fed masks with silicone seals over their faces and let the expert cave divers carry them out.

But it was crucial that the masks fitted tightly, otherwise they might drown, and there was an issue with size. Dozens of full-face masks were procured, but most were for adults. Only four were suitable for children, and there were doubts that even these would do for the smallest boys.

As for sedating them, that would need specialists, and a call went out to two vastly experienced Australian cave divers, Dr Richard Harris, an anaesthetist known by all as Dr Harry, and his friend and dive partner Craig Challen, a retired vet. Dr Harry, who ran a course teaching emergency service workers how to dive, would take on the highly delicate task of putting the boys to sleep, while, with his clinical expertise, Challen would be able to check on them as they were dived out.

As they flew in, both men were acutely aware of the mammoth risks involved and asked the Thai government for diplomatic immunity. There was a real possibility that some — possibly all — the boys would die, and understandably they did not want to be blamed.

The full extent of the dangers involved came crashing in when tragedy struck. Saman Gunan was a 37-year-old former Thai SEAL who had volunteered to help. A formidable character, he ran triathlons and threw himself into extreme endurance sports.

As a support diver, Gunan was tasked with taking spare oxygen tanks to leave in one of the chambers along the route. He delivered them and set off back to the entrance, but he never made it. His body was found floating in the murky water, with his mouthpiece detached. No one is sure what happened. Was his air tank contaminated? Had he over-exerted himself and a build-up of carbon dioxide put his brain to sleep?

Gunan’s death shattered the optimism buzzing around the mountain. If a fit, former SEAL could die, what chances did the Wild Boars have?

PREPARATIONS now began in earnest, and to give their plan every chance of success, the rescuers took over a local indoor swimming pool. Thai Navy SEALs and British divers went through a secret dummy run, using three youths of small, medium and tall build — roughly the same sizes as the boys trapped in the cave.

They practised putting masks on them, submerging them face down, with a diver holding them underneath and passing them through the water. The youngsters were told to stay still, like the soon-to-be-sedated Wild Boars.

It was a success, and this brought a lift in mood. But whether it would work in dark flooded tunnels with zero visibility was another matter.

For Dr Harry, the vital question was what cocktail of drugs to use to keep the boys unconscious but safe for the three hours it would take to get each of them to the surface.

This kind of rescue had never been attempted before, so there was no rule book to follow. He decided on a combination of three drugs. First, he would give them a tablet of the anti-anxiety drug Xanax to take the edge off their fear. Then he would inject ketamine into a leg muscle — five milligrams per kilogram of bodyweight — to put them to sleep.

Ketamine acts fast but lasts only an hour. The recovery divers with each boy would then have to top them up with a pre-loaded syringe.

The last drug, atropine, to reduce the saliva in the boys’ mouths from which they could drown, would also be injected into their legs.

Dr Harry wasn’t confident the drugs would work. ‘I thought there was zero chance of success,’ he later admitted. Others involved were more upbeat, but even they thought that as many as five of the boys would die. Meanwhile, down in the cave, the Wild Boars were mentally preparing themselves. When they’d been told what was going to happen, they didn’t whimper or cry. They just accepted it. Whatever it took to get out of that cave was fine by them.

Biw remembered thinking: ‘I’m coming out. I’m not afraid.’ A supply diver suggested they should write messages to their parents that he would carry out ahead of them. He reasoned that if things didn’t go to plan, their families would at least get these final words from them.

On white graph paper, specially treated to survive getting wet, one boy wrote a message on behalf of all: ‘Don’t worry about us. When we get out we want to get home right away. Don’t give us too much homework.’ And then, each boy penned his own words. Little Titan, the youngest, wrote: ‘Get ready to take me to eat fried chicken.’

SUNDAY, JULY 8, was D-Day and that morning the divers gathered for a final briefing. They had no idea if they would finish the day as heroes or be dealing with dead children. They ran through the specifics of the plan. Dr Harry would administer the sedation, then one of four recovery divers would take the unconscious boy and transport him through the flooded parts of the cave system. Support divers would be stationed in chambers between the sumps (passages in the cave that had filled with water) to perform medical and equipment checks, administer drug top-ups and carry each boy over dry sections.

Around 10am, the recovery team entered the cave and made their way half-a-mile to what was designated as Chamber 3, where a base camp had been set up. Just before midday, they set off further into the mountain.

Those left behind watched the glow of the divers’ torches fade away underwater. It would be five long hours before those in Chamber 3 had any idea if the operation had been a success. Meanwhile, on the muddy ledge where they had now been trapped for 16 days, the Wild Boars were working out who should be in the first party of four to go out.

Dr Pak was satisfied that they were all in good health and strong enough to make the trip. When he asked for volunteers to lead the way, many hands shot up. He asked Coach Ek to decide.

Ek selected Note, Tern, Nick and Night — on the basis that their homes were furthest away from the cave. ‘We planned that, once out, they would ride their bicycles home and let the other families know along the way.’

His reasoning showed how little the Wild Boars understood of what was happening outside. They had no idea the whole world was watching and waiting, transfixed by the dramatic rescue operation.

Fourteen-year-old Note was the first to go. He put on a wet suit and swallowed the sedative tablet he was given by Dr Pak to relax him.

He walked down the slope to Dr Harry, and sat in his lap. The anaesthetist eased two prepared syringes into his legs and the boy fell into unconsciousness.

He was then put into the rest of his diving gear and an air tank strapped to his front. The air was turned on and the all-important full-face mask fitted. After 30 seconds, Note began to breathe normally.

The divers then handcuffed him, tying cable ties around his wrists and clipping them behind his back. This was to ensure that if he did wake up from his ketamine slumber, he wouldn’t try to rip off his face mask, endangering both his life and that of his rescuer.

British diver Jason Mallinson volunteered to go first with Note. He took hold of the harness strap on the boy’s back and submerged, holding him in roughly the same position as a strapped-together tandem skydiver and instructor.

Then he began swimming cautiously through the first flooded tunnel. The initial stretch was a long one, about 350 yards, before Mallinson surfaced in the next chamber, where Craig Challen was waiting to do a medical check.

Note’s inert body was manoeuvred out of the water onto dry land, his diving gear and tanks removed and he was dragged on a stretcher across the rocky floor to the next half-filled sump, where Mallinson reverted to the tandem technique.

Plunging into the second sump, Mallinson felt his way along in the darkness, avoiding bumping the boy into stalactites and rocks at any cost. Protecting the child often meant taking a hit himself.

The recovery divers all talked of bashing their helmets again and again into the cave ceiling, and using their bodies to protect their charges. The two biggest dangers under-water were the boy waking up and panicking, or his mask leaking and turning that plastic and silicone bubble of life over his face into a death trap. Preventing the mask from becoming dislodged was a constant concern.

Mallinson slowly negotiated the narrowest gap of the dive before coming to another tricky point where the tunnel went vertical and he had to find a way of posting the horizontal boy through.

‘It was very daunting and very slow,’ he recalled, but he was making progress towards Chamber 6, the halfway point.

There, two other divers waited for the tell-tale glow of a torch in the murky water. A silhouette emerged slowly from the flooded tunnel and Mallinson surfaced with his precious human cargo.

The boy was breathing and alive. The plan was working. Once again Note was hauled onto dry land, his mask and tank removed, his breathing and saliva levels checked. Everything looked good. All the while the boy slept.

They put his gear back on him and then Mallinson sank back into the brown murk with him. Diving and wading, he carried Note through the rest of the flooded cave until he reached Chamber 3, the command centre, where eager hands were waiting to haul the boy out of the water.

A medical team checked him over before loading him onto a special rescue stretcher made of plastic so it could glide easily over rock. They hoisted him up a steep slope and down the other side.

More than 100 people were involved in this game of pass-the-parcel as the stretcher was carried, floated through a half-filled sump, carried, floated through another, and passed on again.

Slowed by the drugs, the unconscious boy’s breathing was shallow and difficult. A rescuer whispered encouragement. ‘You’re almost there!’ As Note emerged into the world, a cheer went up among the rescue workers and spread backwards, like a wave, through the tunnel, a moment of happiness and relief. They’d done it.

Now, just 12 more to go.

BACK IN the cave, 14-year-old Tern had watched his schoolmate Note go bravely down the slope to the edge of the water. Now it was his turn. The injections knocked him out quickly and he was kitted up for the dive.

British diver John Volanthen had the momentous task of guiding the boy through. For days, he had been mentally preparing himself for the horrible possibility of ‘taking a live child underwater and bringing out a corpse’.

He descended into the water, holding Tern close.

Next to go was 15-year-old Nick, who was not even a member of the Wild Boars football team. He had gone along on the trip to spend time with his best friend, Biw. Nick was supervised by another Briton, Rick Stanton, who gripped the back of the boy’s harness. ‘They were basically packages with a handle, like a shopping bag,’ Stanton recalled.

Once underwater, he reached out his other hand for the guide rope and started the journey.

So far, so good. The rescue was going well. But there was always a nervous moment at the start. Each time an anaesthetised boy entered the water, he would stop breathing for about 30 seconds.

Most were fine but Night, the next boy to go, reacted badly to the drugs. His breathing was irregular and Dr Harry lay with him on the ground holding his airway open. It was half an hour before the boy started to recover and was ready to go. Night was given another shot and taken back into the water by Somerset-based diver Chris Jewell, who was in awe of how brave all the boys were.

‘They did everything right in order to make it possible for us to rescue them,’ he said. ‘I never saw a whimper or a tear in the eye. They were extremely calm, strong, determined young men.’

By 9pm, the first day’s operation was over. All four boys had been carried through the flooded tunnels and all emerged safely.

Helicoptered to hospital, they were placed in a sterile ward and — to their disappointment — restricted to a bland hospital diet at first. They’d presumed they’d be eating home-cooked food and sleeping in their own beds. Divers like Chris Jewell were euphoric, though their joy was mixed with the knowledge that they were going to have go through the stressful process again and again before the rescue was complete. ‘The diving wasn’t going to get any easier,’ he said.

Nonetheless, the next day another four boys were successfully brought to the surface.

There were problems. One started to wake as Jason Mallinson was swimming him through a partially flooded passage, and the diver had to inject him while also controlling the boy in the water.

‘It was very tricky,’ Mallinson recalled. ‘I had syringes floating around on the surface, just trying to grab hold of them.’

Fortunately, the boys remembered none of these perilous moments. The ketamine disconnected their thoughts from their physical reality, and some went off into vivid dreams.

So it was eight out and five to go — but a growing threat was now hanging over the rest. Weather forecasters were warning of heavy storms approaching — the sort of monsoonal downpour that had trapped the Wild Boars in the cave in the first place.

It could leave the remaining five stuck in that airless pocket two-and-a-half miles inside the mountain. The rescuers must move fast to bring them out.

The next morning the divers were edgy as they assembled outside the cave. Overnight it had rained heavily, and it was still raining. The cave system was filling up again and time was short. Would their luck hold?

Of the five left in the cave, Coach Ek went first on the final rescue day. His face was gaunt after 18 days of keeping the boys calm and together in the darkness, teaching them meditation, encouraging them to conserve energy.

Next was Tee, oldest of the players, who somehow got snagged on a wire in the tunnel. John Volanthen remembered having to ‘park’ the boy on the bottom of the flooded cave while he cut away the wire and freed his legs.

This incident confirmed the value of sedation. There was little chance of a conscious person staying calm and still if they became entangled and their rescue diver left them on the cave floor.

Titan, the youngest and second-smallest boy, went next, followed by Pong. Then it was time for Mark, the smallest and the last. Each day he had waited, desperate to get out of the miserable cave, but there was never a face-mask small enough to fit him tightly to seal out the water.

One that might work had been found overnight and brought into the cave. No one could be absolutely sure it would do the job, but there was no choice.

The divers would have to be extra careful not to bump him against a rock and flood his breathing apparatus — a task that had become even more challenging as, churned up by the day’s traffic, the visibility in the sumps was now practically zero.

Mark got his jabs, went to sleep in his tiny wetsuit and, like the others, was brought out without a hitch. It was all over. All 13 Wild Boars had been saved and were remarkably well. Here was the fairytale ending that everyone had prayed for and worked so hard for but didn’t think possible.

Outside, there were jubilant scenes. Support workers lined up to cheer and yell ‘thank you’ as each of the divers and rescue workers walked out of the cave. Parents came forward to hug them. At their camp, the SEALs, who’d led the operation from the start, sang, danced and whooped.

Job done, the international team of divers that had come together to save the boys went their separate ways. Life moved on.

Yet this was a story that had touched the hearts of so many people around the world. It had it all: a misadventure we could all relate to; children trapped and hungry; the race against time; the water rising, falling; the world sending its best and bravest; the tragedy of an unexpected death.

Then the dramatic rescue, playing out bit by bit; somehow pulling off what seemed impossible and giving the world a moment of much-needed happiness.

At a time when the news cycle was so often full of violence, meanness and stupidity, here was something we could all get behind. For once, we were all united in hope. We were all on Team Wild Boars and we’d all won.

Adapted by Tony Rennell from The Cave by Liam Cochrane, published by ABC Books at £15.99. Copyright © Liam Cochrane 2019. 

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