Risky rescue attempt under way for Thai cave boys as world prays

Oxygen tanks by the hundreds have been positioned inside strategic points in the cave. Thai Navy Photo.
David Simmons is in Thailand.

By David SimmonsPAK CHONG, Thailand – A perilous attempt to rescue the team of young soccer players who have been trapped for two weeks deep in a flooded cave is under way, the governor of the northern Thai province of Chiang Rai has announced.Thai and foreign divers began the attempt at 10am local time on Sunday, Governor Narongsak Osottanakorn told a news conference. However, because of the difficulty of the operation and the depth of the Tham Luang Cave complex, its success or failure won’t be known until some time this evening Thai time.Early on Sunday (Saturday evening Vancouver time), there were only rumours that a rescue attempt was imminent, or even that some of the boys may have been extracted already.All that was known for sure at first was that everyone not directly connected with the rescue operation was being corralled by police out of the area in front of the cave entrance. That included journalists, both local and foreign.Since the initial elation when the boys and their soccer coach were found several days ago huddled in a high, dry spot in the flooded cave, the nation – and much of the outside world – has become stressed out again. Pumps were going full-tilt to get as much water as possible out of the cave, in the hopes of avoiding the almost impossible task of teaching 13 people – most or all of whom can’t swim – to scuba-dive.

The cave where the kids are marooned on a ledge has gushing water, making it difficult to come out without diving gear. Thai Navy Seals Photo

The weather has been cooperating for now, but monsoon rains are due to crash into the area very soon, with Mother Nature easily overwhelming man’s feeble pumps. It appears that it was decided that although a rescue at this time is risky, it is worth doing rather than leaving the kids stuck down there for weeks or even months. Besides the trauma they would have to endure, there is no guarantee that the floodwaters would not get even higher and overwhelm their place of refuge.Plans have been in place ever since the boys were found to minister to their needs. An entire floor of a nearby hospital has been cleared to accommodate them and their families as doctors check them over, though current reports are that they are all in good health considering their ordeal. (Unlike in Canada, most Thai hospitals don’t enforce strict visiting hours, and it’s common for family members to camp out with ill loved ones in their hospital rooms.)

Oxygen tanks by the hundreds have been positioned inside strategic points in the cave. Thai Navy Photo.

However, even if the news this evening is the best that can be hoped for – that all 13 are safe and sound and back out in the open air – the saga will continue. The top priority will be the boys’ psychological health, but tough questions will also need to be answered. Many are being asked about Ekapol Chanthawong, the 25-year-old assistant coach of the Wild Boars junior soccer team, who apparently led the boys on a hike into the cave after a practice session.There is much angry commentary on social media that Ekapon showed poor judgment taking the boys into the cave when he knew, or should have known, that sudden rainstorms and flash floods are frequent in Chiang Rai province at this time of year. However, many reports have applauded him for doing his best to keep the boys safe after they got trapped, helping them find clean water and sharing the little food he had with them, and conducting meditation sessions to keep their spirits up.

These are the boys who have been trapped inside a flooded cave in Thailand. Navy Seals photo.

But for now everyone in Thailand and their supporters worldwide just want the rescue operation to succeed, and without further tragedies like the one that struck a Royal Thai Navy diver, Petty Officer Saman Kunan, 37, who was killed trying to carry oxygen tanks through the cave labyrinth. He has since been honoured as a national hero and granted a royal funeral.After a week when, on top of the cave saga, Thailand has endured a horrendous fatal boating accident off the resort island of Phuket and the deaths of army personnel in a light-plane crash, it needs to become the Land of Smiles again.

David Simmons is a former assistant city editor at The Province. He now lives in Thailand with his Wife and children.