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The full incredible story of the Thai cave rescue

Thailand cave rescue: All 12 boys and coach safe

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It was a story that had the world on tenterhooks. The Wild Boars football team and their coach headed to a cave in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province in the Thamluang area, planning to explore together for just an hour after practice. But it played out very differently. Now, almost five years on, Duangpetch Promthep, one of the 12 boys rescued who turned 13 while in the cave, has died at the age of 17 in the UK after reportedly suffering a head injury. Here re-examines what happened during those nail-biting two weeks.

The Wild Boar boys — aged from 11 to 17 — were celebrating one of the boy’s 17th birthdays, Peerapat “Night” Sompiangjai. The team and the assistant coach, Ekkapol “Ake” Chantawong, had played football together before they all biked to the Tham Luang cave, beloved by the team, to explore, dumping their bikes and bags with some even leaving their shoes near the entrance.

They often would do this all together, venturing some five miles into the cave on some occasions. June 23, 2018, was different from no other trip. Armed with torches they went into the cave system that divides Thailand and Myanmar.

Exploring the cave system is no mean feat, others have gone missing and in the monsoon season which begins in July, the cave can flood up to five metres deep.

In the days leading up to their erroneous adventure, it had been raining and the water had collected in the Tham Luang cave system. Then, while they were in the cave, a storm caused the passageways to fill up — fast. They were forced to venture further inside.

After the boys failed to return home, the alarm bells were sounded. The teams’ parents had their suspicions of where they all might be, particularly as it is known that it can be dangerous in the caves, even for experienced cavers.

What ensued was an agonising wait for the boys’ families, not knowing if their children would make it out alive.

But deep in the cave, the boys, led by their coach, had found somewhere safe to wait, some two and a half miles deep. Although they were gripped by fear and hunger, they dug out a cavern where they could huddle for warmth.

The coach, formerly a monk, taught them how to meditate to help stop them from panicking about claustrophobia and retain energy and strength.

Air was able to reach the group through the limestone and cracks in the rocks and moisture dripping from the cave walls meant they had some water.

Meanwhile, on land, an enormous rescue mission was beginning. Led by the Thai national police, the Navy Seals and aided by local volunteers, attempts to find the boys proved unsuccessful at first. Footprints were found but crushingly no sign that the boys were alive.

A sense of community had enveloped the area – and further afield. The boys’ desperate parents congregated, holding vigils. Then, on June 28, international rescuers made up of specialists and divers from the US, UK, and other countries in Europe, arrived to pitch in. One of the Wild Boar football team told the rescue effort about the area that the group would often visit, and it offered hope that perhaps they had headed there for shelter.

It was a gruelling effort. The conditions often meant the rescuers had to retreat. But a week into the mission, the divers made it to the so-called “chamber three” which acted as a base from within the cave.

Finally, they found the group, engulfed in darkness. “Thank you, thank you,” the boys can be heard shouting as the rescuers, John Volanthen and Rick Stanton, shine their torches on them in a video.

“How many of you?” Mr Stanton asked. He undoubtedly let out a sigh of relief: “Thirteen” came the answer. “Brilliant,” he replied. The boys had lost all concept of time, having been trapped for ten days by this point.

The families celebrated when hearing that their loved ones were alive. The boys were then joined by a military medic and the Navy SEAL divers while frantic planning began on how to get them out.

Thin and weak, the boys were given special medicated liquid food and water with extra vitamins. But in notes to their parents, they sent their love, that they were strong — and told how they wanted to “eat many things” like chicken and mookatha (That BBQ).

Although the football team had been found, getting them out of the cave would not be easy. They could not swim and parts of the cave would be difficult for even the most experienced divers to traverse.

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This was proven when, tragically, on July 6, Saman Gunan, a Navy seal diver, was delivering air tanks when he ran out of air himself. His dive partner tried to resuscitate the 38-year-old but to no avail. His death shook many and acted as a stark reminder of the danger the boys and their coach were in.

After preparing and testing different methods, it was time to get them out on July 7 as calculations had shown that by July 10, the cave system would be completely flooded.

Wearing face masks to ensure they could breathe and sedated on ketamine, the boys were taken through narrow passages. In the second phase of the journey, they were put on stretchers, wearing air tanks. The entire process, which saw the boys and the coach rescued in three batches, was extremely stressful for the rescuers.

Despite the odds, they were all out, in what was later described as a “superhuman” effort. The Navy Seals, in a post on Facebook at the time, said they were not sure if it was a “miracle, science or what”.

A few of the boys needed antibiotics or had minor infections, but they all got back to health quickly, and the extraordinary tale went on to inspire films and books with a six-episode miniseries, called Thai Cave Rescue, which was released on Netflix last year as well as the film Thirteen Lives, streaming on Amazon Prime.

But the rescue effort’s conclusion was bittersweet. A year after the mission concluded, Petty Officer Beirut Pakbara, who was a member of the Thai Navy Seal, died from a blood infection contracted in the cave. And now, another young life has been lost, one made so famous but overcoming all the odds.


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