The Tham Luang Cave Rescue Operation

The cave rescue operation in Thailand has been in the news for the last week or so, but most English-language articles are short on both details and context. Since the drama is taking place right on his doorstep, our Bangkok correspondent H. Numan fills us in with this digest of the events so far.

The Tham Luang cave rescue operation

by H. Numan

On 23 June a junior soccer team, the Wild Boars, went on an outing to explore a cave. Very likely the were surprised by a rainstorm and were no longer able to exit the cave. The onrushing water forced them deeper inside the cave. Later that day a forest ranger found their bikes parked near the entrance of the cave, and raised the alarm.

It was assumed the twelve boys, aged 12 to 16, and their coach (25) were locked inside, and a rescue operation was started. That rescue operation got bigger and bigger and is now the biggest rescue operation ever attempted in the history of the kingdom. From a few brave souls crawling in the cave it became a huge operation with well over a thousand of people working frantically to save the kids. The army, police, navy, navy SEALS, many local and foreign volunteers, even the government of Myanmar offer as much help as they can. There are now experts from Belgium, Australia, Britain and China. The US armed forces help with advice, experts and logistics. Private companies offered help and expertise. For example, Elon Musk offered his latest batteries to power the electric pumps.

A bit of background for you: the cave is named Tham Luang Nang Non (ถ้ำหลวงนางนอน; “Great Cave of the Sleeping Lady”) and is actually a huge underground complex.

It stretches for miles underground. It’s massive maze of rooms, chambers connected by narrow passages. It was hoped the boys found refuge on a large sand dune named ‘Pattaya Beach’ about three miles deep inside the cave. The mountain and the cave complex are right on the border with Myanmar. That complicates the situation somewhat; fortunately, the president of Myanmar personally ordered full cooperation with the rescue operation.

For nine days teams of divers and expert speleologists slowly worked their way towards the assumed position of the boys. The whole nation held its breath. Are the kids still alive? Then on Sunday great news: two British experts in cave diving were able to reach the boys. All were in relatively good health. They hadn’t eaten anything and licked water from the walls. Their coach was sensible enough to tell them not to drink the muddy water directly. The little food he had he gave to his pupils and he’s now sort of a national hero. The group sat there alone in the dark. They had no idea how long they had been there, the first question was ‘what day is it?’

Help came from all over the world. Thailand itself tries whatever it can to rescue the boys. That’s very difficult for many reasons. It’s the rainy or monsoon season right now. It rains heavily, especially in that area. The caves are largely flooded. The boys are marooned inside a cave on a sand dune. None of them can swim, let alone dive. The water is like latte coffee; visibility is zero. The current is strong. Inside the caves it is pitch dark. (The boys did have flashlights, and many more were brought by rescuers.)

Only expert cave divers are capable of reaching the boys. Not just professional divers; they need to be expert cave divers as well. That’s a whole different ball game. Cave diving is by far the most dangerous form of diving there is. An expert diver with many years of experience under his belt who has never before dived in caves is not an expert, but a liability.

To prove my point: a Thai ex-navy diver, Petty Officer 3rd Class Samarn Kunan, drowned last night on his way back from the cave to the base camp. He rain out of air on the way back.

How to get the kids and their coach out of there? That’s the (many) million dollar question. The kids can’t swim, let alone dive. Expert divers need a couple of hours simply to reach them. It’s not like ‘just give them a mask and a bottle of air, and pull them out’. They have to swim, crawl and dive through water with zero visibility through narrow passages for a couple of hours. In some places divers have to take off their equipment under water in order to get through narrow passages.

The problem is that there aren’t that many other options. Believe me, they’re trying everything. As it stands now, there is only one way out of the cave and that’s the hard way. Another possibility is to supply the boys and their coach and wait until the monsoon is over. Which means that they have to remain there until at least October. It’s not certain if that is even possible. Bad weather is on the way, heavy rainstorms are expected in the weekend. Furthermore the natural oxygen supply in the cave seems to be in doubt.

Can’t they pump out the water?, you may ask. Of course. That was one of the first things tried. Right now 1,500 rai (240 hectares) of rice paddies are flooded because of the pumping. The government showed its best side: the farmers get full compensation for the loss of their crops. Thousands of cubic meters of water are being pumped out.

Unfortunately, it is not enough. Not even by a long shot. You have to experience a tropical monsoon storm to truly understand how much water falls down. It’s massive. Lots of that water seeps through rocks and passages inside the caves. Whatever is pumped out is replaced by much more water. At the moment the situation is stable, the water level is dropping a bit. But not a lot. If during the weekend a storm hits, it might very well rise again.

Rumors abound. Today I read stories that conflict with each other: some divers say evacuation is imminent, others stories deny this and say the exact opposite.

This incident united the nation. There aren’t red, yellow or whatever colors here. Everybody works to rescue the kids. This goes well above politics. The king expressed his sympathy, personally donated food for the rescuers (that’s more than you think: a thousand people working hard eat a lot in fourteen days), and equipment. He made it known that all foreign rescuers are to be treated as his personal guests as long as they are in Thailand. Something the nation whole heartily agrees with.

I’ll keep you informed about progress.

— H. Numan

31 thoughts on “The Tham Luang Cave Rescue Operation

  1. It’s things like this that bring the whole world together. Best wishes to the children from me and my buddies in the United States.

  2. The normal practice in the west would be to drive a couple of small bore holes down the space near the boys and blow air in one hole. This would be followed by a larger bore hole, maybe 18-24 inches (45-60 cm) in diameter down to the same area. Then the boys would be lifted out thru this hole.

    I believe that was done by a western company to rescue the Chilean miners.

    • I’ve heard that and many other solutions. Let’s just say that the guys who work there have some idea of what they are doing. If that was feasible, it would have been done. As far as I know that cave is about a mile from the surface.

    • I understand that the cave structure is less stable than the mines in Chile and Quecreek (a mine in Pennsylvania). Therefore, drilling could endanger the rescue.

      • OK, why not pump air into the cave using the underwater access? Not only would the air keep the folks alive but the air pressure would prevent the water from rising and flooding the cave (somewhat).
        I do understand, from a bit of mining experience that I have, that the last thing that you want to do is punch a hole in a cave ceiling. However, you could drill down near the beach away from the high ceiling where they are taking shelter. Just my $0.02.

        • I believe they were looking at doing that if the rescue was going to take a long time. I think they were also worried about the build up of gasses like CO.

          It looks like rescuers are going in and they’re predicting six hour return journeys. Hopefully it all works out.

  3. Like everyone else, I have been reading all the articles I can find about this amazing story. At this point, all I can do is pray for those poor boys who remind me so much of my own grandsons. I cannot imagine what their parents and loved ones must be going through, knowing the situation and being powerless to help them.

    I have also read about some suggestions from Elon Musk’s engineers and also read the comment here from agesilaus about boring the holes.

    One thing that bothers me immensely- I do not like to see life and death decisions made by bureaucrats and politicians. I sincerely hope that the engineers, technicians, cave divers and other professionals will be the ones who come up a plan and implement it.

    God bless the boys and those that are trying to rescue them.

    • So far it appears Thai politicians have more sense than their American counterparts.

      • Yes, in the USA, various race hustlers and culture mongers would be offering – entirely unsolicited, from yours truly, at least- their keen insights into the sociological implications of this rescue effort.

  4. Thanks to HN for his report. He’s right: few of us have the experience of monsoon rains. Intuition says that it probably has to be experienced to be believed.

    • Thanks Dymphna. Imagine the heaviest rainstorm you can. Times 20. Usually this load drops down in about 15-30 minutes. This is what we experience in Bangkok. Up north in the mountains those deluges can last a lot longer.

      Seems there is progress around the cave. It’s possible/likely they have started the evacuation. No other news at present.

  5. Pray that the angels all get together and hold off the monsoon rains, and that Elon Musk’s mini-sub idea, or boring a hole from above, or rescue in whatever way, works.

  6. Yes but really, entering a cave complex during the Monsoon season! Would this error have been made even decades ago, when kids were actually taught something about the environment they lived in? Nowadays Thai kids are like the kids in the West, hypnotized by their smartphones, and hooked into the hi-tech grid, learning nothing at school, and hence common sense re Nature goes out the window.

    Let’s hope they can somehow rescue the kids.

    It reminds me of an incident in Israel this April, when 10 teenagers were swept away by flash flooding. They were on a hike they should never have been on in the first place. The organizer of the hike was arrested by police for criminal negligence, I don’t know the latest there…

    • Your comment, and the link you provided, are a gut unch.

      Particularly poignant was the following, from a promising young girl who died on this “excursion”:

      “This is tempting fate. We will die. I’m serious,” she wrote. “I can’t believe that I’m actually going on a trip in this weather. It makes no sense for us to go to a place where everything is flooded.”

  7. German PI News has an article about it, too, and points out the contribution of Israel helping with special radios which enable communication under these conditions, and the fact that this country is the only one never named (outside of Israel) in any of the stories that mention international support.

  8. You say the 25-year-old who took the kids into this death trap is seen by some as a “national hero”?? Not in my book. He has been highly negligent, leading children down there, whatever the time of year. Giving them his food is the least he can do.

  9. I have always loved Thailand,and I love it even more seeing how they responded to this high-stakes challenge. The king insisting that that all rescuers be treated as his personal guests has intense meaning and is beyond beautiful. May God bless them all.

  10. Details please: How to determine position in cave from surface? Does ground penetrating radar go that deep or some kind of CAT scan using sound waves?Have phone, oxygen or food lines been put in from entrance to boys’? Is some expert leader-adult staying with them all the time?, other than coach? Have they delivered food or blankets or lights or batteries or toilet paper to them? Do radios work down there? Would some kind of jury-rigged sonar work? Does anyone down there know Morse code or amateur radio? …in case ping system is established? How are boys sleeping? What is temperature? Is darkness becomng intolerable? Are they cold or hot? Are they all getting depressed or weak or sick? Are all boys accounted for or are some missing? Does some agency or person or spelunking group know exactly the cave architecture?..and the nature of the rock above the cave? Are there any drilling companies in nearby towns or villages? Who is in charge? Are planning meetings going on amongst rescuers?

    • It’s a lot more high tech than morse code. They have laid a video cable so the boys could talk and be seen on video by family and rescuers at the cave entrance. The work of the international divers is breathtaking. They are the best in the world for that environment (including Australian cave divers) and probably only they could get those boys out. Some of those divers have experience of water depths of 200 metres in caves.

  11. The others will be evacuated later today. The compressed air cylinders along the route have to be replaced by fresh cylinders first.

  12. Four more children have been rescued. Later today or tomorrow the last five will be evacuated, but again the compressed air cylinders need to be replaced. All children are in reasonably good conditions. They have been taken by ambulances and helicopters to a hospital in Chiang Rai.

    That hospital is sealed to the public. Only the parents, medical staff and rescuers have access.

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