clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The rescue of the 12 Thai boys who were trapped in a cave, explained

All of the boys and their coach were brought out of the cave on stretchers in an extraordinary mission.

Onlookers cheer as ambulances transported the last boys and their coach from a helipad to Chiangrai Prachanukroh Hospital on July 10 in Chiang Rai, Thailand.
Getty Images

The rescue mission to save 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach who’ve been trapped in a cave in northern Thailand is complete with all 12 boys and their coach rescued and returning home.

“We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what. All the thirteen Wild Boars are now out of the cave,” the Thai Navy SEALs said on their Facebook page on July 10.

On July 18 — almost a month after they entered the cave and were trapped by the rain — they were released from the hospital and have been cleared to return to their families. The boys also addressed the public for the first time at a press conference, and talked about what they had learned from the ordeal; one boy said he would be “more careful and live my life the fullest.” Another said, “This experience taught me to be more patient and strong.”

Getty Images

The 12 boys and the coach were found trapped in the flooded Tham Luang Nang Non cave system a half a mile below the surface by two British divers on July 2. The soccer team, known as the Wild Boars, had been missing since June 23, when heavy monsoon rains flooded the cave and trapped them in a chamber some 2.5 miles from the cave’s mouth.

The mission to rescue them was an extraordinary international operation with hundreds of cave and rescue experts and military personnel from several different countries, including the United States, pitching in. Rescue divers first delivered food and medical supplies, and then an air tube to the boys to make sure they had enough oxygen to breathe. They then escorted them out of the cave on stretchers guided by expert divers, one by one.

“The operation went much better than expected,” Chiang Rai acting Gov. Narongsak Osatanakorn said, according to the Associated Press.

The initial rescue plan was to wait out the monsoon season, or at least to wait until the boys regained strength. But the threat of more rain loomed, and the situation became more dire. Oxygen levels in the cave had dropped to levels that could become dangerous. And the rescue team had a fatality Friday in 38-year-old volunteer Saman Kunan, who lost consciousness as he was bringing oxygen tanks into the cave because he ran out of air underwater.

Relatives of the missing boys show photos of them after the 12 boys and their soccer coach were found alive.
Linh Pham/Getty Images

After the operation to bring them out of the cave began on Sunday, the boys were rescued in three waves: four on Sunday, four on Monday, and four plus their coach on Tuesday.

How did the Thai boys get in the cave?

It was Saturday, June 23. The team of 12 boys — who were all between the ages of 11 and 16 and nicknamed the Wild Boars — had just finished a weekly soccer practice and went to explore the cave with their coach. According to the Wall Street Journal, they had been inside the cave before; this time, they wanted to go further in to write their names on the wall as part of an initiation.

But after they’d entered the cave, heavy rain started falling and the rising water trapped them inside.

The boys tried to dig their way out. With no food and water, they began licking the condensed water on the sides of the cave walls to stay hydrated. And their coach, Ekapol Chantawong, who had trained in a Buddhist monastery, led the boys through meditation sessions to help them stay calm.

“I had no strength at all,” said 11-year-old Chanin Wibulroongreung at the press conference on July 18. “I didn’t think about food because it only made me hungrier.”

As Richard C. Paddock and Muktita Suhartono of the New York Times reported, at first, the governor of Chiang Rai province, where the cave is located, thought a rescue would be “impossible.”

But the effort swiftly became an international collaboration. The US sent 30 people, including 17 members of the Air Force. Rescuers joined from Australia, Japan, China, Myanmar, and Laos. The British Cave Rescue Council headed the cave exploration that eventually found them.

One of the divers on the search team, Ben Reymenants, spoke to Vox about what it was like trying to find the boys:

When I arrived, the entrance looked like the Colorado River, but with mud and with zero visibility, so it was really pulling hand over hand.

There was this really strong outflow, and at the beginning we were advancing about maybe 100 meters a day in zero visibility, fighting the current. And then there are parts where you have to climb up, dragging all your tanks.

I turned around from one unsuccessful dive, and I took out my line and came back and I met the British who were on their way in. And then we decided, “We have to call it off, because it’s not going to happen. People will die, and we don’t even know if these kids are alive.”

When the divers found the missing boys and the coach, they were huddled on a rock above the water, smiling but emaciated.

Footage of that moment — published on the Thai Navy SEALs’ Facebook page — has nearly 26 million views. Over muffled audio, you can hear one of the rescuers telling the boys, “You have been here 10 days. 10 days. You are very strong, very strong.”

The video made a celebrity out of one of the boys: 14-year-old Adul Sam-on, a stateless refugee from Myanmar who could speak English and helped communicate with the divers.

Hooyah.....ทีมหมูป่า พบเยาวชนทีมหมูป่าบริเวณหาดทรายห่างจาก Pattaya beach 200 เมตร โดยนักดำน้ำหน่วยซีลดำน้ำวางไลน์เชือกนำทาง ร่วมกับนักดำน้ำจากประเทศอังกฤษ ระยะทางจากห้องโถง 3 ยาว 1,900 เมตร เมื่อเวลา 21.38 น. คืนวันที่ 2 กรกฎาคม 2561 #ThainavySEAL

Posted by Thai NavySEAL on Monday, July 2, 2018

The story struck a happy chord around the world. People from all over tweeted out their excitement upon hearing of the rescue.

The days leading to the rescue

The mission: navigate 12 boys without cave diving experience through 2.5 miles of flooded and narrow passageways. For days, it seemed an impossible task.

As oxygen levels dropped and the risk of more rainfall increased, the Royal Thai Navy realized that it needed to act quickly.

“At first we thought we could sustain the kids’ lives for a long time where they are now, but now many things have changed,” Thai Navy SEAL Rear Adm. Arpakorn Yookongkaew said on Friday. “We have a limited amount of time.”

The rescuers had been juggling four options: pumping out the water flooding the cave, teaching the boys to swim, finding or drilling an alternative entrance, or waiting out the monsoon.

Javier Zarracina/Vox

It took the experienced divers five hours to make the journey out of the cave due to high currents, poor visibility, and narrow, muddy paths, and many were unsure if the boys could take on this gargantuan challenge.

Edd Sorenson, a member of the National Speleological Society-Cave Diving Section, told Vox that dry rescues like this one — where the trapped people are not fully submerged — are usually safer than wet rescues. But this rescue has been complicated by the flooding.

“Water can be very violent, and this is a very difficult [cave rescue] because of the extreme high flow, the zero visibility, the boulder pile chokes, restrictions,” he said.

The Navy, as well as a Special Response Team from Australia, had been bringing in food, water, medicine, and diving equipment into the cave. To raise oxygen levels, they ran air pipe from the rescue base inside the cave to the chamber where the boys and the coach are waiting to be rescued.

The rescue team also worked round the clock over the past week to pump about 40 percent of the water out of the cave — so much water that nearby farmers’ fields got flooded. Despite their ruined fields, some farmers said they were glad to be part of the mission: “With the farming, we can make money again. But 13 lives are not something we can create,” one told the Straits Times.

Soccer stars provided moral support too: Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima and Christian Fuchs sent messages to the team. Elon Musk tweeted Saturday that his SpaceX his engineers were working on a “tiny, kid-size submarine” that might be useful in the rescue.

The rescue was difficult because the monsoon rains flooded the cave entrance.
Linh Pham/Getty Images

How were the boys rescued?

On Tuesday, the Thai Navy SEALs updated their Facebook page with a joyful message: “We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what. All the thirteen Wild Boars are now out of the cave.”

Rescuers initially said they were going to teach the boys to swim out of the flooded cave accompanied by expert divers. But on Wednesday afternoon, a day after the mission was completed, the Thai Navy SEALs posted a video to Facebook that suggests the boys did not swim, but instead were given full-face masks, put on stretchers, and guided through the passageways by the divers:

ปฏิบัติการที่โลกต้องจดจำ The operation the world never forgets. 18 วัน ที่ผู้คนทั้งโลกรวมใจมาอยู่ด้วยกัน รวมพลังช่วยกันพานักฟุตบอลทีมหมูป่าอะคาเดมี 12 คนและโค้ช กลับบ้าน และเราจะจดจความเสียสละ ความงดงามในจิตใจของเรือโทสมาน กุนัน ตลอดไป Hooyah Hooyah Hooyah

Posted by Thai NavySEAL on Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Thai prime minister also said on Tuesday the boys were given an anti-anxiety medication as part of the rescue. And since the medic in the cave, Richard Harris, was an anesthetist, he may have overseen that part of the rescue effort.

A former Thai Navy SEAL involved with the operation, Commander Chaiyananta Peeranarong, told AFP on Wednesday that the boys were “sleeping or partially-conscious as they were passed from diver-to-diver through the cave.”

“Some of them were asleep, some of them were wiggling their fingers... (as if) groggy, but they were breathing,” he said.

There are conflicting reports of how much and what kind of medication given to the boys to keep them calm or knock them out for the operation. CBS reported that the boys were given only anti-anxiety medication, but AFP’s source said some of the boys were fully sedated.

One reason the narrative of the rescue mission has changed is that rescuers seemed to have changed the plan, but were instructed not to give out information to the media while the risky rescue was still underway.

Onlookers watched as the boys reached the hospital on July 9.
Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

After the near-perfect rescue, the boys were quarantined for a week at the Chiang Rai Prachanukroh hospital to make sure that they hadn’t caught any transmissible diseases from their time in the cave. A doctor at the press conference said that they were ready to return to their families and readjust to everyday life.

And during the press conference, the coach thanked Kunan, the Thai Navy SEAL who died while delivering oxygen tanks into the cave during the rescue: “We are impressed that Saman sacrificed his life to save us so that we could go and live our lives. Once we heard the news, we were shocked. We were very sad. We felt like ... we caused sadness to his family.”

The boys will likely be ordained as Buddhist monks for a short time; according to the BBC, it’s a common practice for Thai men and boys who undergo traumatic events.

Clarification: An earlier version of this piece said that the boys swam out of the cave with the help of expert divers. New information that became available Wednesday revealed that in fact they were given an anti-anxiety medication or sedative and wrapped on stretchers as the expert divers ferried them through the cave system.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Vox Recommends

Get curated picks of the best Vox journalism to read, watch, and listen to every week, from our editors.