Thai cave rescue called 'once-in-a-lifetime'; U.S. diver says boys ‘strong’ in will to survive trip

Posted: July 12, 2018 at 4:30 a.m.

An undated photo released Wednesday by Thai navy SEALS shows rescuers holding an evacuated boy inside the Tham Luang Nang Non cave.

MAE SAI, Thailand -- The Thai boys saved from a flooded cave this week endured dives in zero visibility lasting up to half an hour. In places, they were put into harnesses and high-lined across rocky caverns, said a leader of the U.S. contingent involved in the operation, who called it a "once-in-a-lifetime rescue."

Derek Anderson, a 32-year-old rescue specialist with the U.S. Air Force based in Okinawa, Japan, said the dozen boys, ranging in age from 11 to 16, and their coach, who were trapped for more than two weeks, were "incredibly resilient."

"What was really important was the coach and the boys all came together and discussed staying strong, having the will to live, having the will to survive," Anderson said Wednesday.

The boys and their soccer coach demonstrated that determination Wednesday, making the V-for-victory sign from their beds in a hospital isolation ward where they are recovering from the 18-day ordeal. Ecstatic relatives watched and waved from the other side of a glass barrier.

"Everyone is strong in mind and heart," Chaiwetch Thanapaisal, director of Chiang Rai Prachanukroh Hospital where the boys and coach are being treated, said at a news conference.

The last group to be rescued -- four boys and the coach -- have recovered more quickly than the boys rescued on Sunday and Monday, Chaiwetch said.

Even so, all need to be monitored in the hospital for a week and then must rest at home for another 30 days, he said. Three have slight lung infections.

Thongchai Lertwilairatanapong, a public-health inspector, said the boys lost an average of 4.4 pounds while they were trapped. Before their discovery, they survived by drinking water dripping into their cramped refuge.

Acting Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn of Chiang Rai province, who oversaw the rescue operation, said the boys should not be blamed for what nearly became a tragedy. He lauded the cooperation between Thai and international rescuers.

"The situation went beyond just being a rescue mission and became a symbol of unity among mankind," he said. "Everyone worked together without discrimination of race or religion as the ultimate goal was to save the youth football team."

Anderson said the scale of the challenge confronting rescuers from Thailand, Britain, Australia and other countries only truly dawned on the U.S. team after it arrived at the cave in the early hours of June 28 as rain poured down on the region in northern Thailand. The Thai government had requested U.S. assistance.

"The cave was dry when we arrived, and within an hour and a half it had already filled up by 2 to 3 feet and we were being pushed out," Anderson said.

"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," he said.

Thailand's decision to get the boys out despite their weak condition and lack of diving experience was made when a window of opportunity was provided by relatively mild weather. An operation to pump out water also meant air pockets were created at crucial points of the cave, making a rescue possible.

Falling oxygen levels, risk of sickness and the imminent prospect of the cave complex flooding for months meant "the long-term survivability of the boys in the cave was becoming a less and less feasible option," Anderson said.

Divers practiced their rescue techniques in a swimming pool with children who were about the same height and weight as the members of the Wild Boars soccer team trapped in the cave.

The complicated operation to get the boys out of the cave began Sunday, when four were extracted. Four more were freed Monday, and the operation ended Tuesday with the rescue of the last four boys and their 25-year-old coach.

Rear Adm. Apakorn Youkongkae, commander of the Thai Navy SEALs, said the soccer coach, Ekkapol Chantawong, determined the order the boys would be rescued in.

The group had entered the sprawling Tham Luang cave to go exploring after soccer practice June 23, but monsoon rains filled the tight passageways, blocking their escape and pushing them deeper inside in search of refuge.

There were about 100 people inside the cave for each rescue operation, Anderson said, and each boy was handled by dozens of people as their movement through a total of nine chambers unfolded.

In some phases, they were guided by two divers. In some narrow passages, they were connected to only one diver. In caverns with air pockets, they were "floated" through with the support of four rescuers. Some sections were completely dry but treacherously rocky or deep.

"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," Anderson said. "We were extremely fortunate that the outcome was the way it was."

"If you lose your cool in an environment like that, there is a lot of bad repercussions," he said.

Information for this article was contributed by Kaweewit Kaewjinda of The Associated Press.

A Section on 07/12/2018