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August 2018    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Vol. 33, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Extreme Courage -- and a Good Nose

cave divers’ amazing rescue of the Wild Boar soccer team

from the August, 2018 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

Can you imagine scuba diving in the narrow confines of an unfamiliar cave system with no clear surface and little or no visibility, while fighting a strong current? It's not for the faint-hearted . And when you consider doing that while searching for children lost for many days who are low on food and air, there are few who are mentally equipped to do it.

It was John Volanthen, a 47-year-old amateur cave diver and IT technician from Bristol, England, who surfaced in Thailand's Tham Luang Cave after running out of guide line, only to discover 12 scrawny boys and their 25-year-old soccer coach, staring back at him by the light of his helmet-mounted flashlight . If his line had been 15 feet shorter, he would have turned back without ever seeing them.

Volanthen: His Nose Knew Where The Kids WereAn unlikely looking hero, the slightly built and normally bespectacled Volanthen had struggled through narrow constrictions in a maze of tunnels, and muddy water with visibility akin to pea soup, before chancing upon the boys far beyond "Pataya Beach," where they were anticipated to be . By then, it had been 10 days since they had gone cave exploring after soccer practice and been trapped by floodwaters from which they had retreated.

Thai authorities called in Volanthen, together with Rick Stanton, a 57-year-old firefighter from England, to search the cave system . The two Brits have a reputation as some of the greatest cave-rescue divers on the planet . Together with four others, they comprise the voluntary British Cave Rescue Council, who flew out to Thailand to contribute their cave diving skills to the search-and-rescue efforts . With typical British understatement, they later described it as "a gnarly dive."

Cave diving of this type is a very specialized skill, so expert cave rescuers are rare . Thailand was fortunate that experienced caver, Vern Unsworth, had explored the Tham Luang cave complex extensively and lived nearby . He was on the scene the day after the boys disappeared, and suggested the Thai government invite expert divers from other countries to aid in the search . Thai navy divers initially struggled because their experience and equipment were more suitable for ocean diving. Once foreign divers arrived, the Thai authorities sensibly allowed them to devise the search and then the enormously complex rescue.

Ben Reymenants, a Belgian cave diver who owns a dive shop in Thailand and was one of the earlier arrivals at the scene, told Undercurrent, "When we came out, the British cave divers were just coming in, and we were like, 'You probably can find them . We think it's another 400 to 800 meters .' And so they were right in after us, and three hours later, they surfaced in the room where the kids were."

In a subsequent interview with the BBC, Volanthen denied that finding the boys relied on luck; it was the result of a systematic search . He said that at every available air space, his team would surface, shout and test the air . He knew he had found the children when he could smell them.

The next step was to give the boys, ages 11 to 17, food and medical attention before making a fast attempt to extract them . More seasonal rains were expected to engulf the ledge on which they had been found . The British cave divers specifically requested Richard Harris, an Australian doctor and anesthesiologist who specializes in expedition medicine and cave retrieval operations . He heroically stayed in the cave with the boys for three days until they were out.

Some of the water was successfully pumped out of the cave system, and oxygen lines positioned to replace the air that was quickly becoming even more depleted after so many rescue personnel joined the boys in the confined space . Up to 50 foreign divers and 40 Thai divers were involved in the rescue . It was a massive logistical exercise carried out in the most difficult conditions.

A strong guide rope and pulley systems were installed to aid navigation for both supplies in and divers out, but it still meant a 1 .5-mile underwater journey for the boys through difficult conditions, poor visibility and cave constrictions as little as 15 inches high . None of the boys knew how to scuba dive; some of the boys didn't even know how to swim . The total distance to the cave exit was 2 .5 miles.

On July 8, five days after the boys were first found and with guidelines now in place, 18 divers from the Thai military started the rescue . Eight boys were successfully and safely extracted from the cave one day later . On the following day, the remaining four boys, their coach, Doctor Harris, who had stayed with them, and the last Thai navy SEALs were finally out . It was a second miracle.

Unfortunately, it was not all a happy ending: Saman Gunan, a former Thai navy diver, had died three days before the extraction started after running out of air on the way back from an oxygen-supply run to the boys' cave ledge.

Details of the actual rescue techniques were only revealed later . Each boy was fitted with a full-face diving mask, strapped to one of two rescue divers tasked with shepherding him through the water, and bundled onto a stretcher to be carried through the dry parts of the cave system.

Finnish cave rescue diver Jani Santala told BBC Radio 4's Today that the last group of boys were heavily sedated to avoid anxiety as they went through the dark, narrow underwater passageways . (The depth of the dives was insufficient to cause concern about narcosis or other side effects.) However, at a press conference, Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha insisted the boys were not given anesthesia, just anti-anxiety medication, but didn't specify which kind.

"Who the hell would give that to a kid?" he said about anesthesia, adding the boys were instead given "something to make them not too nervous and panic."

Former Navy SEAL Chaiyananta Peeranarong told AFP News, "Some of them were asleep, and some of them were wiggling their fingers, kind of groggy -- but they were breathing . My job was to transfer them along."

The successful rescue must be credited to the courage of all volunteers involved, as well as the strength and mental fortitude of the young members of the Wild Boar soccer team who had been trapped underground for 17 days.

But it all could have easily ended in disaster: It has now been revealed that the water pumps failed in the final stage . Commander Chaiyananta Peeranarong, the last person to leave the cave, told the press that he heard shouts of alarm as the pumps failed in an area between two chambers, filling them with water as 20 rescuers remained inside . "By the time the last diver was out, the water was already at head level, almost to the point where he needed an oxygen [air] tank."

There have been calls for John Volanthen and Rick Stanton to receive awards such as the George Medal from Queen Elizabeth for their efforts . But Volanthen credits the international team of military, navy and civilian divers who all "pulled together ." Safely back in the U .K ., he told Sky News, "We were very pleased and we were very relieved that they were all alive, but I think at that point we realized the enormity of the situation, and that's perhaps why it took a while to get them all out .

"I dive for passion, and always wondered if it would ever have a purpose," Volanthen said . "[The] last two weeks were what I have prepared for my entire life."

Heroes all.

-- John Bantin

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