Divers give first detailed account of Thai cave rescue: water pumps failed after last boy escaped

Authorities have shrouded the details of the rescue bid in secrecy, with fragments of information emerging about the heroic efforts of the dive team

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 July, 2018, 4:22pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 July, 2018, 11:34am

The rescue operation to free the last of the 12 boys and their football coach from a Thailand cave could have been a disaster, divers have revealed, with water pumps draining the area failing just hours after the last boy had been evacuated.

Divers and rescuers were still more than 1.5km inside the cave clearing up equipment when the main pump failed, leading water levels to rapidly increase, three Australian divers involved in the operation told The Guardian on Wednesday, in the first detailed account of the mission to be published.

The trio, stationed at “chamber three”, a base inside the cave, said they heard screaming and saw a rush of head torches from deeper inside the tunnel as workers scrambled to reach dry ground.

“The screams started coming because the main pumps failed and the water started rising,” said one of the divers, speaking anonymously because he is not authorised to comment.

“All these headlights start coming over the hill and the water was coming … It was noticeably rising.”

The remaining 100 workers inside the cave frantically rushed to the exit and were out less than an hour later, including the last three Thai navy Seals and medic who had spent much of the past week keeping vigil with the trapped boys.

The boys of the Wild Boar football team were brought out in three daring rescue operations starting on Sunday morning.

An elite team of 19 divers were involved in ferrying the boys and their 25-year-old coach the around 3.2km path from the muddy slope where they had been sheltering to the outside world.

The first four emerged on Sunday, the next four on Monday and then the final five about 8pm local time on Tuesday evening.

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The operation required the boys to learn to breathe using scuba masks and to traverse narrow, jagged tunnels.

During the final mission, as the three Seals and doctor were passed up the human chain of rescuers that had formed inside the cave, each section began cheering and applauding. The rescuers compared it to a joyful Mexican wave that continued until the entrance.

The rescuers in the daisy chain spent more than eight hours a day standing on a tiny patch of wet, muddy ground waiting for their turn to pass the boys along the treacherous path. “If one of those people doesn’t do their jobs properly, the stretcher falls,” one diver said.

The journey from chamber three to the cave entrance took about four to five hours initially, but was reduced to less than an hour after a week of draining and clearing the mud path using shovels.

The 12 boys, who wore diving cylinders and were each tethered to an adult diver, had to submerge themselves for much of the journey but were carried on bright red Sked stretchers whenever they entered patches of dry ground.

Each one left the cave on these stretchers still wearing their breathing masks. Much of last week was spent clearing the 1.5km path from chamber three to the entrance.

Meanwhile, a Thai public health official said that all boys and their soccer coach were in good health but need to be monitored for about two weeks.

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The 13 are recovering in hospital in Chiang Rai, the capital of the province of the same name.

Thongchai Lertwilairatanapong, a Public Health Ministry inspector, told a press conference one of those rescued Tuesday had a slight lung infection and he was now being treated. The official described the condition of the last group as fine.

The official said the four who were rescued Sunday have begun eating regular food, while those brought out Monday, also in good condition without any infections, were expected to resume normal meals by the end of Wednesday.

The parents of the four rescued Sunday have been allowed to visit them but on condition that they keep a distance of 2 metres from the boys and wear gowns to prevent infection.

The boys will be monitored for one week at the hospital and for another week at home, according to their doctors.

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As to their mental health, Thongchai said the doctors had not seen signs of stress but a team of psychologists would follow up to ensure that the boys, their coach and their families are free of stress.

Their dramatic rescue dominated front page headlines in Thailand.

Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ochra made a televised statement thanking everyone involved in the mission who “shared their expertise, manpower and equipment”.

Official help came from Britain, the United States, Japan, Laos, Myanmar, China and Australia, a government document showed. There were also volunteers from Denmark, Germany, Belgium, Canada, Ukraine and Finland.

A senior Australian police officer acknowledged the degree of international cooperation “in a very unfriendly environment”.

“It is amazing what the human being can do. There are extraordinary people doing extraordinary things,” Glenn McEwan, the Australian Federal Police’s Asia manager, told reporters in Chiang Rai.

“ … We are humbled to have been a part of it. Returning the Wild Boar soccer team safely into the arms of their loved ones is the good news of the year.”

The Guardian, Reuters, Kyodo