Thai boys race against time and terrain

Trapped in a treacherous water-filled cave with dwindling oxygen, thirteen youngsters valiantly fight for their lives

By Author  |  Published: 8th Jul 2018  12:00 amUpdated: 7th Jul 2018  11:22 pm

As one of the boys responded “Thirteen”, to the British diver’s question “How many of you?” there was a sigh of relief for the families of all those trapped in a cave complex in Northern Thailand.

When 12 boys, aged between 11 and 16, along with their 25-year-old football coach went sightseeing to the popular Tham Luang Cave on June 23, little did they anticipate what was in store for them. Despite signboards alerting visitors not to enter the cave in the rainy season – starting July, the team along with the coach ventured into the cave, only to get stranded for days.

It was only after 10 days of being trapped in a flooded cave complex and after an enormous search effort that has transfixed Thailand, that the missing 12 boys and their soccer coach were finally found in Tham Luang Cave on Monday (July 2).

Late Monday, Chiang Rai, provincial governor, broke the news of their being found, delighting an entire nation and several across the world anxiously following every twist and turn in the herculean effort to save them.

Brave Boys

Rescuers first found the boys’ bicycles, football boots and backpacks near the cave’s entrance and discovered handprints and footprints further in, sending a shiver down the spine of family members.

However, the ill-fated ‘Wild Boars’– as they are called, showed a lot of grit and stuck safely together, much to everybody’s pleasant surprise, despite being weak physically owing to lack of food, indicating to the world yet again what wonders a closely-knit team could do.

While rescue teams, including divers and Navy SEALs, had been working round the clock to get the boys and their coach to safety, the team of 13 showed great spirit and grit despite being very young, inside one of the toughest caves to navigate in Thailand.

Families, friends and teachers of the Wild Boar football team refused to give up hope of seeing the young players again, though it was close to two weeks that they were trapped. Relatives of the boys, some of whom camped at the site for days now, did not lose hope and said that all they wanted was a safe exit for their children.

“I’m worried…he has never dived,” said Somboon Kaewwongwan, father of a 16-year-old boy trapped in the cave. Tilek Jana said he was eagerly awaiting his friend Prajak’s return. “Let him come and let’s play (football) together, I miss him,” he told AFP.

The Real Risk

Though the boys have been finally ‘discovered’, it does not mean the ordeal is over and they will certainly be saved. The treacherous nature of the caves filled with water came to the fore on July 6 when Saman Gunan (38) – a former member of the Thai navy’s elite SEAL unit – who volunteered to help his old comrades died due to lack of oxygen, while on his way back after delivering oxygen to the boys.

Saman’s death points to the complexity of the mission. It also highlights the dangerous situation that the trapped boys find themselves in, especially since none of them can dive and many do not know how to swim. The option of teaching the boys how to dive and swim is now out of consideration after the expert’s death highlighted the perils surrounding such an attempt.

The option of retaining the stranded boys inside the cave till the rain waters recede too does not seem an option after Thailand’s meteorological department forecast heavy rains for the next one week. Scarily, the oxygen levels in the cave have dropped to 15%, posing a serious risk of hypoxia, thus making it extremely dangerous to leave the boys in the cave any longer. Bringing them out from their isolated chamber in the caves too is equally risky because the only passage to the chamber is flooded.

Meanwhile, heartfelt tributes poured in for Saman Gunan from his colleagues and military units across the world alike. Thai Navy SEAL chief Rear Admiral Arpakorn Yuukongkaew said: “We won’t let his life be in vain. We will carry on.” His funeral is being sponsored by the royal family.

World Willing to Help

Many across the world have been keenly following the rescue efforts while others are praying for their safe return. Several people have also come forward to contribute their might and be a part of the rescue operations.

It was a concerned diving duo from Britain that first made contact with the stranded soccer team after a gap of nine strenuous days. John Volanthen, an IT consultant and his partner Rick Stanton, a retired firefighter, volunteered to chip in with help for the rescue teams by using their self-taught hobby of cave diving to gain contact with the boys. The duo, famously known as the ‘A-Team’ successfully found the boys and won millions of hearts with their brilliant efforts.

The Croatian football team, which is competing in the World Cup in Russia, offered “support and love” to the Wild Boars. In an official statement on June 6, the team said “We are impressed with the courage and strength the young boys and their coach have shown despite the scary circumstances they find themselves in. To our soccer family in Thailand, we wish to express our support and love, and we hope the boys and their coach will be together soon with their families.”

Tesla chief Elon Musk also has come forward to support in whatever way possible. Musk, on Saturday, sent a team of engineers from The SpaceX and The Boring Company to Thailand in order to help the rescuers find an efficient way to bring the boys back to safety.

He said his company could aid rescue efforts with its “advanced ground penetrating radar” as well as the company’s “fully charged powerpacks and pumps.” Later, he also opined that the boys could be brought out by inserting a nylon tube into the cave network to create air tunnel underwater, raising hopes of their safety.

With support, love and aid coming in from so many quarters, the Wild Boars needs to hold on in this race against terrain and time, for when and if the rescue will actually happen, remain uncertain.