The birthday party that went wrong
It all began with a birthday. On Saturday 23 June, Peerapat “Night” Sompiangjai turned 17 – a milestone most young people around the world would want to celebrate in style. Night was out with his friends, the other members of local youth football team the Wild Boars, and their assistant coach, Ekkapol “Ake” Chantawong. When their football practice ended, they raced through the rice paddies on their bicycles and up into the forested hills that lately had been blanketed in rain. They were ready to celebrate Night’s birthday.
Their destination: the Tham Luang cave. Snaking for 10km beneath the cloud-swathed mountain range that separates Thailand and Myanmar is Tham Luang, the fourth biggest Thai cave system. Named after a mountain shaped like a reclining woman, its full name is Tham Luang Khun Nam Nang Non – “the great cave and water source of the sleeping lady mountain”. Rich in folklore, it is a popular destination for day-trippers – and adventurous children.
The cave has its dangers – people have gone missing in Tham Luang before. And once monsoon season starts in July, the cave goes from innocuous to extremely dangerous. The cave can flood up to 5m (16ft) during the rainy season, and should only be entered between November and April. And once the cave floods – it’s risky even for experienced divers.
Once at the mouth of Tham Luang, they stashed their bikes and bags by the cave entrance. They had often ventured deep into Tham Luang, sometimes as far as 8km, for initiation rites where they would write the names of new team members on a cave wall. In high spirits, they clambered into the cave with just their torches. They didn’t know they wouldn’t see lights for two weeks.
Back at home, their families began to worry. Where were the Wild Boars?
Almost everyone in Mae Sai knows about the dangers of the cave. So the parents of the Wild Boars headed straight to the cave. The boys’ plans to visit Tham Luang had been discussed in a group chat on a messaging app with other friends. They found the bikes, the bags, and some football shoes outside. They raised the alarm.
Deep in the cave, the Wild Boars found themselves in trouble. It had been raining for the last few days, and the Tham Luang cave was fast filling up. One initial account from the boys suggests they were caught off-guard by a flash flood. They needed to get out, but instead had no choice but to scramble even deeper into the cave. The Wild Boars eventually found themselves marooned on a small rocky shelf about 4km from the cave entrance, past a normally dry point known as Pattaya Beach which by now was flooded.
Swallowed up by an unforgiving mountain and surrounded by darkness, the boys and the coach lost all sense of time. Fear, perhaps even terror, would no doubt have crept in. But they were nothing but determined to survive. The group used rocks to dig 5m deeper into the shelf, to create a cavern where they could huddle together and keep warm. Coach Ake, a former monk, taught the boys meditation techniques – to help them stay calm and use as little air as possible – and told them to lie still to conserve their strength.
They apparently had no food – but they did have a supply of drinkable water in the form of moisture dripping from the cave walls. It was dark, but they had their torches. There was also enough air for a while – because the porous limestone and cracks in the rocks meant air could come through. They had the right conditions to survive – at least for a little while. And most importantly, the Wild Boars had one another. Now came the hardest bit – hoping for rescue.
Outside the cave, a full-blown rescue operation was quickly unfolding. Authorities called in the elite Thai Navy Seals, the national police, and other rescue teams. Local volunteers also pitched in. Initial investigations found footprints at one of the chambers in the cave – but no other sign the boys were still alive.
Exploring the cave was a challenge – most of the Navy divers had little cave diving experience and the heavy rainfall meant the water level was still rising, flooding chambers and cutting off rescuers from parts of the cave.
Engineers desperately tried to pump water out of the cave. Officials brought whatever equipment they could think of – small water pumps, long pipes, knives and shovels – but much of it was apparently unsuitable. They even tried drilling into the mountainside, desperate to find cracks into the cave system which they could squeeze into, and used drones with thermal sensors to try to locate the boys.
The story gained the nation’s attention. The first international rescuers arrived on Thursday 28 June. These were US air force rescue specialists, and cave divers from the UK, Belgium, Australia, Scandinavia, and many other countries. Some had volunteered, and some were called in by Thai authorities. Others were roped in when it became clear just how monumental the search effort would be.
On Sunday 1 July – just over a week after the boys went missing – the rescuers made some progress. They reached a large cavern that would be later dubbed “chamber three” and serve as a key base for the divers.
The very next day, two British divers, John Volanthen and Rick Stanton, made an incredible discovery. On Monday, the two men finally reached Pattaya Beach. But there was nothing. They continued onwards into the darkness. Then, a few hundred metres further, they found an air pocket and smelt the children. Soon, the light from John’s torch illuminated an electrifying sight – the boys emerged from the darkness, coming down the ledge towards him. Soon they came to know that all thirteen, twelve boys and their coach, were alive. The lost Wild Boars had been found.
The two divers spent some time with the boys – trying to boost their morale. Then, they left lights with the boys, and promised to return later with food. The boys and their coach were quickly joined by a military medic and Navy SEAL divers who would stay with them for the rest of the ordeal. After nine days in the darkness, the Wild Boars once again saw light. They longed for proper food but doctor’s orders were that they be put on a special diet of medicated liquid food, and mineral water with added vitamins.
The astonishing discovery of the children deep in a mountain cave catapulted tiny Mae Sai into the international spotlight. But then a fatal accident devastated the community. Former Navy Seal diver Saman Gunan was one of many volunteers who had rushed to help in the rescue. On 6 July, while on a routine run to deliver air tanks to the boys, he lost consciousness after running out of air for himself. His dive buddy pulled him out and tried to revive him. But Saman could not be saved. He was only 38 years old.
The death hit home the danger of the rescue mission, and the risks facing the boys. Saman was a fit and healthy diver who had also represented Thailand in triathlons. There was another thing to worry about too – despite efforts to replenish the air, oxygen levels in the chamber had fallen to 15%, lower than the usual 21%.
Time was running out.
Rescuers had identified three possible options:
Training the boys to dive through flooded areas of the cave – a process so ripe with potential for disaster it was widely considered a last resort
Pumping water from the cave and waiting for water levels to recede naturally – but this could take up to four months
Finding or drilling alternative passages into the cave
The rescue team faced conditions very difficult because of the labyrinthine layout of the cave. Finally, late on 6 July, rescuers set up an oxygen supply. And in the end the boys communicated with their parents the old-fashioned way – by writing letters. Scrawling hearts and smiley faces on note paper, the boys told their parents again and again that they loved them and not to worry.
“I’m really sorry to the parents,” wrote Coach Ake in his letter. But instead of a tongue-lashing, he received only love. “Coach Ake, I really thank you for taking care of all the kids, and keeping them safe,” one boy’s relative wrote.
Sunday 7 July. Two weeks had passed since the boys went missing.
Out of the blue, the Thai authorities announced they were pulling out the boys – now. Why the snap decision? The rain that had pelted Mae Sai incessantly had petered out in recent days, giving rescuers a rare break. Locals had also told the Thai Navy Seals that by around 10 July every year, the Tham Luang cave system would be completely flooded. It was time to launch what would later be described as a “superhuman” rescue effort, one that involved nearly 100 Thai and foreign divers.
The journey was split into two sections.
The first – from the boys’ rocky ledge to chamber three – was more difficult. Rescuers made their way for hours through pitch dark waters that were bone-chilling cold, feeling their way with guide ropes. At times they had to navigate sections so ridiculously narrow that they could only just about fit a body through.
Each boy was given a full-face air mask to ensure they could breathe, and clipped to a diver. Another diver accompanied them. A cylinder was strapped to the front of each child, while a handle was attached to their backs – and they were held face down to ensure water would run away from their faces. At the narrow sections, rescuers had to unstrap their air tanks in order to squeeze through, while also pulling along their precious cargo.
It would have been terrifying for experienced divers, let alone for children who were not strong swimmers. The boys and the coach were given anti-anxiety medication to relax to ensure they would not panic.
Once they reached chamber three, it was time for the second phase. This took another few hours.
Each boy was secured in a stretcher, and carried by a team of at least five men. At one point they had to place the stretcher on a raft and pull it across a chin-high pool of water. Rescuers had to winch the boys up a steep slope using a pulley system. In some rocky areas they formed a human chain, passing the boys hand to hand, while at others they slid them on top of pipes pumping out water.
One by one, the Wild Boars were brought out of the darkness of Tham Luang. They were given oxygen before they were swiftly spirited away in ambulances to a hospital in Chiang Rai city. Rescuers took them out in three batches over as many days, as they needed time in between to replenish air tanks.
They were cutting it close. By the time the last batch of boys and the coach were out, water levels were starting to rise again, as rapidly as 30cm in one hour.
While the boys were out, there were still people left on the rocky ledge deep inside Tham Luang – the Navy SEAL divers and medic, Richard Harris, who had looked after the Wild Boars. They emerged shortly after the last boy was taken out. Floodwaters rushed in, sending workers clearing up the site fleeing.
It was an astonishing feat – after two agonising weeks the Thai cave boys and their coach were finally out at last, safe and sound.
At the hospital, the boys and coach were put through a series of health checks. Eye shades were a must at first – their eyes, accustomed to two weeks of darkness, could not bear the light. Hospital authorities said that some had minor lung and eye infections and needed antibiotics. Apart from that, they appeared to be on the mend.
Many had expected the story of the lost Wild Boars to end in tragedy. Instead, it became a story of hope and survival, and of parents and sons reunited. It’s a story of ordinary people from all over the world coming together in a remote town in northern Thailand with one mission: to save 12 young boys and their coach.
What’s next for Mae Sai? The district, and Tham Luang cave, have been put on the global map, probably permanently. Already, local officials are planning to convert the cave complex into a museum and tourist attraction – and, inevitably, at least two production companies are eyeing the Hollywood potential of the story and angling to turn the rescue mission into a film.
This is an abridged version of the story by BBC