Water level surged as Thai cave rescue nearly ended in disaster

Water level surged as Thai cave rescue nearly ended in disaster
PHOTO: Reuters

The water pumps failed, and Commander Chaiyananta Peeranarong heard shouts of alarm as the final stage of an unprecedented operation to rescue 12 Thai boys and their coach from a flooded cave almost tipped into disaster.

The former Navy SEAL, 60, says he was the last to leave the Tham Luang cave after the 12 "Wild Boars" and their football coach were was safely extracted in a three-day operation that ended on Tuesday in jubilation.

But the mission, which leaned on the expertise of elite foreign divers and Thai Navy SEALs, nearly turned into a calamity.

Shortly after the last four boys and the 25-year-old coach were brought out Tuesday late afternoon, the water pumps failed in an area between two chambers, filling them with water as 20 rescuers remained inside.

"Suddenly the Australian guy who was overseeing that area started shouting that the water pump had stopped working," Chaiyananta told AFP.

"If you didn't use the water pump in that location, you could only come out with an oxygen tank," he said, adding the remaining people did not have diving gear to hand.

"By the time the last diver was out the water was already at head level, almost to the point where he needed an oxygen tank."

Photo: AFP

Heavy rains had flooded the Tham Luang cave blocking the football team in after they first entered on June 23.

Thailand's junta leader Prayut Chan-O-Cha on Tuesday said the boys were given a "minor tranquiliser" to keep them calm.

But Chaiyananta, whose job was to help transfer the kids along between chambers two and three, said they were all "sleeping" on the harrowing journey out.

"We just needed them to know how to breathe and not panic in the water," he said.

Footage released by the SEAL team showed seemingly prone boys -- at least one in full diving mask and wetsuit -- being stretchered along the jagged passageways.

Doctors, divers and other rescuers were posted along the twisting corridors monitoring the boys as they were passed through using a system of ropes, pulleys and rubber piping.

Thai cave rescue: Boys share details of their traumatic experience

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    During a national TV broadcast they smiled, joked and showed solidarity with one another, as they shared details of their traumatic experience inside the flooded Tham Luang cave complex.

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    During their TV news conference, the boys said when they entered the cave on June 23 they had planned to only be inside the cave for about an hour after football practice.

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    But a rainy season downpour flooded the tunnels, trapping them.

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    The boys had no food and survived only on water. They took turns digging at the cave walls, hoping to find a way out.

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    "This experience made me stronger and taught me not to give up," said the team's youngest member, who goes by the name Titan.

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    The boys will eventually spend time as novice Buddhist monks to honour the dead diver's memory, their coach said on Wednesday.

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    The Chiangrai Prachanukroh Hospital on Saturday released a video clip on its Facebook page showing the 12 Mu Pa (Wild Boar) Academy footballers and their coach thanking everyone for their concern and help in rescuing them. Chanin Wibulrungruang (Titan), 11, said his condition was returning to normal and he would like to eat sushi. He thanked the Navy SEALs for rescuing him and thanked everyone for all the moral support.

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    They also conveyed that they were in good health and looked forward to tasting their favourite foods. The 12 youths and the coach were seen in a row of beds in the three-minute clip.

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    Pipat Phothi (Nik), 15, said he felt in good health. He said he would like to eat rice with crisp fried pork, and rice with stew red pork. He thanked the rescuers and everyone for the moral support.

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    Piraphat Sompiangchai (Night), 16, said he felt in good health and he would like to eat pork pan chabu very much. He thanked everyone for all the moral support.

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    Adul Sam-on (Dul), 14, said his condition had improved and he would like to go to a KFC shop. He said he was now killing time by drawing pictures of his friends and Coach Ek in the cave.

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    He also said in English: “I’m Adul. I’m very fine. Thank you for helping us. Thank you very much.”

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    Ekkapol Chanthawong, 25, or Coach Ek, said he his condition was improving and he now felt strong. He would like to eat fried rice with crisp pork. He said he would like to thank all the people and all the ministries and Navy SEALs as well as the doctors for helping the team.

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    Pornchai Khamluang (Tee), 16, said he would like to eat fried rice with crisp pork and would like to thank everyone for all the moral support.

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    Sompong Jaiwong (Pong), 13, said he was strong now. He would like to eat curry basil rice with fried egg. He thanked everyone for all the moral support and thanked the international community for helping the team. “Thank you,” he said in English.

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    Mongkol Boonpiam (Mark), 13, said he was now strong and could even run. He would like to eat a piece of steak. He thanked everyone for all the moral support and promised to fight on

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    This handout video grab taken from footage released by The Thai government public relations department (PRD) and Government spokesman bureau on July 11, 2018 shows members of the "Wild Boars" football team being treated at a hospital in Chiang Rai.

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    The 12 boys rescued from a Thai cave were passed "sleeping" on stretchers through the treacherous passageways, a former Thai Navy SEAL told AFP on July 11, giving the first clear details of an astonishing rescue mission that has captivated the world.

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    Doctors have said they are in good physical and mental health -- a view backed up by the footage made available by the Thai government showing them behind quarantine glass in bed wearing smocks and facemasks, flashing peace signs and doing the traditional "wai" greeting.

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    They do not look shell-shocked or stunned despite a potentially harrowing 18 days inside a dank, dark cave followed by a risky rescue operation that was dubbed "Mission Impossible".

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    A screen grab shows people looking through glass at the boys

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Fraught with danger

Two days before the dramatic rescue bid began, another retired SEAL, Saman Kunan, died trying to set up oxygen tanks in a flooded tunnel.

Saman's death, the only casualty in the operation, was widely mourned.

"I want this warm hug once again," his widow Valeepoan said on Instagram, posting a photo of her and Saman embracing.

The world held its breath over the three days it took to retrieve the Wild Boars.

All are recovering at a hospital in northern Thailand's Chiang Rai province, where video showed several of them in seemingly good spirits, waving and flashing peace signs to the camera.

The exact mechanics of the rescue bid were closely guarded during the operation, but details have since dribbled out.

Experts say the divers brought a variety of skills, including the ability to install guidelines that help in low visibility, and previous experience in international operations.

But one man has emerged as a pivotal figure in the most unlikely of rescues -- Australian diver and anaesthetist Richard "Harry" Harris.

Without him "this mission may not have succeeded", the Thai rescue chief, Narongsak Osottanakorn, told reporters late Wednesday.

The website of Harris' medical company based in Adelaide describes him as someone who combines a "taste for adventure with his medical practice and a lifelong interest in the underwater world."

In a statement, Harris and his dive partner Craig Challen expressed relief at the success of the painstaking operation.

"The favourable outcome that has been achieved is almost beyond our imagination when we first became involved," they said.

Two of the 13 frontline foreign expert divers, British pair Richard Stanton and John Volanthen, were the first to locate the team on a shelf several kilometres inside Tham Luang nine days after they went in.

Volanthen received a standing ovation as part of a hero's send-off at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi airport on Wednesday as they left the country.

"We were able to do the job we were asked to do," said the diver, who like most of the divers assiduously avoided the media during the operation in a mission defined by steely resolve.

When asked if he had a message for Thai kids, he told them not to go into a cave when it's raining, eliciting laughter.

Thai cave rescue: How each boy is extracted in complex process

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    The 10-km long Tham Luang cave, which has been described as a labyrinth, sits near the Thai border with Myanmar.

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    Rescue divers began operations on Sunday (July 8) to extract the 12 boys and their football coach from the massive Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai, Thailand.

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    Here's how the 12 boys might dive and walk out of the complex cave network. (Graphic Not drawn to scale)

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    The boys are located more than 4km from the mouth of the cave. Most of the boys don't know how to swim.

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    According to experts, divers required three hours to reach the boys from the mouth of the cave, Reuters reported. The boys' ordeal is expected to last 3 or more hours.

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    This undated handout photo taken recently and released by the Royal Thai Navy on July 7, 2018 shows a Thai Navy diver in the cave during rescue operations.

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    The boys will have to first dive for 400m before reaching Pattaya Beach, a chamber more than 4km from the cave's entrance. Then, they have to dive for another 130m before walking and climbing along a 400m-long dry area.

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    The first, nearly 1km-long section from where the boys have been huddling in darkness is believed to be the most difficult, requiring a long dive and crawling through mud and debris, with some crevices barely wide enough for a person.

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    The 5-km escape route cuts through dark, flooded and narrow passageways, as this still from a video circulating online shows.

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    How each boy will be tethered to the 2 adult rescue divers. Once past the first stretch, the boys' escape route forks east at a T-junction, and they must scrabble over some diverse terrain including giant boulders, sand and slippery rocks with sudden cliff-like drops and further submerged passageways.

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    The biggest crisis spot is a 38-cm-wide crevice close to the T-junction, known as Sam Yaek Junction.

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    The biggest crisis spot is a 38-cm-wide crevice close to the T-junction, known as Sam Yaek Junction.

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    "The hole is really small, I have to take off my air tank to crawl through it," a 25-year-old Thai Navy Seal told Reuters before the rescue attempt. "As I do, I feel the edges of the hole on both my back and chest."

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    Rescue divers will have to remove their scuba tanks and roll them along while guiding the boys through. After that though, the tunnels widen, the waters subside, and walking is even possible.

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    There are several 'choke points' in the complex cave network. After the dreaded T-junction, the rest of the journey is expected to be relatively safe as they will have reached a forward operating base inside the cave.

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    Ambulances wait at the mouth of the cave to whisk the boys away to hospital when they emerge.

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    Divers resuming the rescue mission on Monday (July 9).

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    Police and military personnel use umbrellas to cover around a stretcher near a helicopter and an ambulance at a military airport in Chiang Rai on July 9, 2018.

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    Rescuers venturing into the cave in a photo released on July 7 by the Thai Royal Navy.

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    The high-risk operation at the Tham Luang caves paused overnight on Sunday (July 8) as rescuers recovered and oxygen tanks were replenished along the route.

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    Torchlight only affords visibility up to three feet in the murky waters.

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    A nearby hospital ready to receive the boys after they are rescued.

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