The Thai cave rescue of early July 2018 was an incredible tale of tragedy avoided. What could have been a disastrous situation became a successful recovery of 12 teenage boys and their 25-year-old assistant coach. This incredible ordeal highlights how complicated the work of first responders and expert servicemembers can be.
Finding the trapped team
On June 23, 12 members of a junior soccer team went to explore the Tham Luang Nang Non cave after practice with their assistant coach. Heavy rains partially flooded the cave shortly after, trapping the group inside. Although the boys were declared missing and the head coach discovered their abandoned belongings near the cave's entrance that same day, the rising water and strong currents made it difficult for rescuers to help. It was more than a week before initial contact was finally made.
The rescue expanded into a massive operation that received international attention and support. Thai Navy SEALs were the first on the scene, and they were quickly supported by divers from the British Cave Rescue Council, open water divers, the U.S. Air Force, a team of Specialist Response Group divers from the Australian Federal Police and divers from the Beijing Peaceland Foundation. Even sniffer dogs and drones were used to locate the boys, looking for openings above ground.
The search had to be put on hold multiple times due to continuous rain and flooding. Finally, the group was discovered on July 2, but the rescue's problems didn't cease. The boys and their coach were about 2.5 miles from the cave's entrance, and divers had to figure out how to rescue them through areas with strong currents, low visibility and narrow passages. If the boys panicked on their journey out, they could have died.
The next day, three Thai Navy SEALs joined the stranded group. A doctor, tasked with evaluating the boys and helping keep their spirits up, was among them. Yet, it was still a few days before rescuers could begin removing the team. During this time, on July 5, a Thai Navy SEAL named Saman Kunan died during a mission to provide oxygen to the stranded group. He was the only fatality of the operation.
Major challenges to rescue
Rescuers had to deal with several factors complicating their rescue mission, including:
- Consistent flooding.
- Falling oxygen levels.
- A large group of boys, many who couldn't swim, exhausted by the ordeal.
"The cave was dry when we arrived, and within an hour and half it had already filled up by 2 to 3 feet and we were being pushed out," said Derek Anderson, a 32-year-old U.S. Air Force rescue specialist, to Military.com. "That was just in the very beginning of the cave and at that point we realized this problem is going to be much more complex than we thought."
Because of the constant rains and lack of oxygen, waiting until the flooding season was over to rescue the boys wasn't an option. Instead, on July 8, 18 rescue divers (consisting of 5 Thai Navy SEALs and 13 international supporters) went into the cave, each tasked with rescuing one boy. The divers were equipped with hooded wetsuits, positive pressure face masks, bungee cords and other materials to keep the boys as bundled and close as possible so divers could keep control. The last person in the cave, the assistant coach, was rescued July 10.
Servicemembers and first responders pull off a difficult operation
The team was driven to the hospital in emergency vehicles and given anti-anxiety medication upon rescue. It was only thanks to the dedicated work of trained specialists.
"The world just needs to know that what was accomplished was a once in a lifetime rescue that I think has never been done before," said Anderson. "It's important to realize how complex and how many pieces of this puzzle had to come together."