Divers rescue 12 boys and their coach from a flooded Thai cave
Last updated: April 5, 2019 at 0:37 am
 On July 2, British cave divers Rick Stanton and John Volanthen located all 12 members of a youth football team and their coach trapped inside a flooded cave system in Thailand. The experienced cave rescue divers, who were assisted by a third British diver, Robert Harper, were requested by Thai authorities based on their impressive track record of complex cave rescues. The rescue operation led by the Thai military, including Thai Navy SEAL divers, began on June 23. After a nine-day search, which made headline news across the world, the members of the missing football team were found at last, together, and alive.
The amazing feat required a colossal effort. Equipped with rebreathers and backed by Thai Navy SEALs, Stanton and Volanthen ventured approximately 4 km (2.48 mi.) into the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system, and nearly 1,000 m (3,281 ft) beneath ground level, where they located the boys in a dry chamber. The same monsoon floodwater that trapped the football team after they had entered the cave, and which forced them to move ever deeper into the cave system, also made for extreme diving conditions in bad visibility and difficult currents.
Because the cave system would likely remain flooded for several weeks with the intensifying monsoon rains, authorities were originally left with two options: (1) teach the trapped footballers to scuba dive in extremely challenging conditions, or (2) leave them in the cave for up to four months when receding water levels should allow them to walk out. When it was discovered that the cave might flood completely, the decision was taken to conduct the rescue using scuba. The cave system was partially drained using powerful pumps over a period of several days in an attempt to reduce the distance that would have to be traveled underwater. The extrication was ordered after the boys had been sufficiently prepared and when a storm system threatened to dangerously increase water levels inside the cave system.
On July 4, two more members of the Cave Diving Group, Jason Mallinson and Chris Jewel, depart for Thailand to join an ever-growing team of international divers taking part in the rescue operation.
On July 5, a former Thai Navy SEAL dies after delivering supplies to the trapped group. The diver reportedly lost consciousness while exiting the cave system.
Also on July 5, a video posted on Facebook that purportedly shows the diving conditions at the rescue location goes viral. However, the video was actually filmed in Castle Rock Cave, in the U.S. state of Wisconsin. One of the sections of Tham Luang Nang Non that must be traversed nonetheless contains a partly submerged 38-cm (15 in.) choke point where divers cannot pass while wearing a tank. They must climb an upward slope where they emerge out of the water before descending back into the water on the other side
[Posted by Howard Roscoe on Thursday, 5 July 2018 (Deleted on July 9.) “These are the conditions that the Derbyshire Rescuers has [sic] to contend with during their rescue operation of the 12 Thais in the Chiang Rai Caverns.”]
NOTE: A segment of the video below (beginning at 04:00) that went viral on Facebook and which purportedly showed the diving conditions at the rescue site, was actually filmed in Wisconsin, not Thailand.
On July 8, the rescue operation on scuba begins and four boys are escorted out of the cave and taken to hospital. A rescue doctor and three Thai Navy SEALs stay with the group.
On July 9, four more boys are extricated from the cave.
On July 10, he remaining four boys and their coach are rescued from the flooded cave.
23 June: The team entered the Tham Luang cave shortly after practice and prior to heavy rain. Later, the mother of one of the boys reported to local police that her son was missing after he failed to arrive home. Local police investigated and found shoes and bicycles near the entrance of the cave after rumors spread about them going into the Tham Luang cave.
24 June: Handprints and footprints of the boys were found by officials. A vigil is held outside the cave by relatives.
25 June: Thai Navy SEAL divers enter the cave to search for the team.
26 June: Having arrived at a T-junction, divers were pushed back due to floodwaters. The floodwaters blocked an elevated air pocket near Pattaya Beach, where divers believe the team may have been stranded.
27 June: British and a US military team of divers and experts were sent to Thailand to help with the search. Divers re-entered but quickly retreated due to another flooding.
28 June: Heavy rains caused the rescue operation to stop temporarily. In order to drain the water, pumps were delivered. Drones were dispatched to assist more than 600 people in search of new vents in the cave roof.
29 June: Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha visited the site.
30 June: The search resumed after divers took advantage of a brief pause in the rainfall. They advanced further, but still were far from where they believed the boys might be stranded.
1 July: As divers went deeper into the cave, they used Chamber 3 as an operating base to store diving cylinders and other supplies which were replenished by support divers transiting back and forth to the entrance.
2 July: The team were found alive on elevated land in the evening at around 20:20 by the British diving team, including Richard Stanton and John Volanthen, 400 m (1,300 ft) further than Pattaya Beach. Communication was difficult since only Adun spoke English.
3 July: Seven Thai Navy divers, including Doctor Pak Loharnshoon and a medic, went to deliver food, medicine and supplies to the boys, including high calorie gels and paracetamol. Four of them, including Loharnshoon, volunteered to stay with the boys inside the cave for a week until all 12 were extracted. They would be the last people to exit the cave.
4 July: The team were taught how to use a full face diving mask and breathing apparatus as none of the boys knew how to swim. Rescue teams worked on continuing to pumping water from the cave, they had already pumped out over 30 million gallons.
5 July: The rescue was forced to move more quickly due to expected rain. Another group searched the mountains for any new cracks or openings.
6 July: Saman Kunan, a former Thai navy diver and volunteer of the rescue mission, died between 01:00 to 02:00 after losing consciousness while placing diving cylinders underwater along the route to the stranded boys. Authorities urged that the rescue happen faster, due to oxygen levels falling to 15%, well below the 21% “safe zone.”
7 July: The rescue chief claimed that it was not suitable for the team to dive yet. More than 100 vents were being drilled in a third attempt to reach the team. However, an accident to a rescue vehicle injured six people, and the effort was called off. A letter appeared from the coach of the team, apologising to the boys’ parents along with letters from the boys to their parents.
8 July: Thirteen international divers, led by four British and two Australian divers, and five Thai military SEALs divers went into the cave to begin bringing the boys to safety. The boys were each to be accompanied by 3 divers as they made their way out of the cave. The boys were also sedated to prevent any panic. The first boy was reported to have come out about 17:40, and the fourth one was reported to have exited about 19:50, though not all sources agree. The four boys were taken to Chiang Rai Prachanukroh, a local hospital. It was announced that divers would not resume the rescue for at least another 10 hours, as they needed to replenish supplies.
9 July: Four more boys were confirmed to be out of the cave and then taken to the hospital. It was also announced that the boys would be kept in quarantine.
10 July: The remaining four boys and their coach were rescued. It was later confirmed that all of the rescue divers had also successfully exited the cave.
UPDATE: According to a report¹ published in the New England Journal of Medicine in April 2019, all of the boys were administered unspecified doses of ketamine, also known as party drug Special K, in order to prevent them from panicking while they were being taken out of Tham Luang cave.
International Rescue Team²
Over the course of two weeks, hundreds of volunteers, military specialists and corporate experts arrived from around the world to offer assistance in the rescue.
- Australia: Six Australian Federal Police (AFP) Specialist Response Group divers, one Navy Clearance diver, one Australian Medical Assistance Team (AUSMAT) member and Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Crisis Response Team officers. Up to 20 Australians were involved at the cave site. Doctor Richard Harris, an anaesthetist, was part of the medical team that determined the boys’ fitness to make the 4-kilometre (2.5 mi) journey. Harris and his diving partner, retired veterinarian Doctor Craig Challen, both cave diving specialists, played key roles in the rescue. The Thai government provided Harris with diplomatic immunity to protect him in case anything went wrong with the sedation.
- Belgium: Ben Reymenants, the owner of a diving school in Phuket, contributed in cave diving capacity.
- Canada: Erik Brown, a dive instructor from Vancouver, participated on the cave diving team.
- China: A six man team from the volunteer rescue organisation the Beijing Peaceland Foundation arrived on 29 June. The team brought rescue equipment including an underwater robot, diving equipment and a three-dimensional imager. A second Chinese team arrived on 30 June from the Green Boat Emergency Rescue organisation with expertise in search and rescue on mountains and in caves.
- Czech Republic: Government of the Czech Republic offered to provide a Czech manufacturer’s high performance pumps; the state has four such pumps, each with an output of 400 litres per second (1,440,000 l/h (380,000 US gal/h)). Upon inspection at the site, however, it was determined heavy-duty pumps could not be used due to unsuitable terrain.
- Denmark: Two Danish divers, Ivan Karadzic who runs a diving center with Finnish Mikko Paasi, and Claus Rasmussen, a diving instructor, participated in the cave diving team.
- Finland: Diver Mikko Paasi came to assist with rescue efforts.
- Ireland: Diver Jim Warny assisted with the rescue efforts.
- India: Experts from Kirlosker Brothers’ Limited’s (KBL) offered technical know-how and advice on dewatering and pumps.
- Israel: Diver Rafael Aroush joined the diving team while emergency mobile communication devices were donated by Maxtech NetWorks.
- Japan: Divers and engineers, including Shigeki Miyake, a drainage specialist of the Japan International Cooperation Agency in Thailand, assisted in efforts to pump water out of the cave.
- Laos: Members of the Vientiane Rescue contributed to search and rescue efforts.
- Netherlands: Drainage specialists were sent to aid water pumping efforts.
- Russia: Ministry of Emergency Situations sent a volunteer team including a rescue specialist.
- United Kingdom: The British Cave Rescue Council sent eight experienced cave rescue divers, some familiar with caves in Thailand, to lead the diving team; three cave rescue personnel; and special equipment. Vernon Unsworth, a British man living in the area, was the first person with caving expertise on the site. John Volanthen and Rick Stanton discovered the boys and led the cave diving team. Chris Jewell and Jason Mallison brought 500 kilograms (1,100 lb) of diving equipment. Other divers involved included Connor Roe and Josh Bratchley. Other cave rescue personnel, Mike Clayton, and Gary Mitchell provided surface control for the divers, along with Robert Harper who had initially deployed among the first three U.K. divers. Tim Acton deployed as a friend of the Thai Navy SEAL’s.
- United States: On 28 June, the US military’s Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) deployed 36 personnel from Okinawa, including airmen from 353rd Special Operations Group and the 31st Rescue Squadron. According to Military.com, they joined seven other personnel, including a member of Joint US Military Advisory Group Thailand. Pentagon spokesman Colonel Rob Manning said that US personnel had “staged equipment and prepared the first three chambers of the cave for safe passage. The US contingent assisted in transporting the evacuees through the final chambers of the system, and provided medical personnel and other technical assistance to the rescue efforts.”
Volunteers, teams and technical specialists from countries including Germany, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Spain, Sweden, and Ukraine, also participated in the operation. France offered to send a team of specialists and equipment, but Thai authorities believed that adequate resources were already on site. Tesla chief executive Elon Musk contacted James Yenbamroong, CEO of Thailand-based satellite company mu Space Corp, to get him connected with the Thai government. He then ordered engineers from two of his companies to design a “kid-sized” submarine to help the rescue effort. Thai authorities decided not to use the submarine.
“This amazing rescue will go down in history as a time when the world held its breath and hoped for a miracle which came in the form of brave and selfless cave divers and their support teams from Thailand and beyond.” — The Diving Almanac
This ongoing story will be updated as new information becomes available.
Rick Stanton and John Volanthen were part of the dive team that set the world record the longest cave penetration dive (with DPV).
Royal Thai Navy
¹ Prehospital Care of the 13 Hypothermic, Anesthetized Patients in the Thailand Cave Rescue. April 4, 2019. New England Journal of Medicine 2019; 380:1372-1373
² Tham Luang cave rescue, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Tham_Luang_cave_rescue&oldid=881210086 (last visited Feb. 5, 2019).
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Jeffrey Gallant is the Editor-in-Chief and Records Keeper of the Diving Almanac. He is also a contributing editor of DIVER Magazine, and the scientific director of the Greenland Shark and Elasmobranch Education and Research Group (GEERG). Jeffrey started diving in 1982.