The rescue of the century has just taken place June 23, 2018 in Thailand. The lives of twelve Thai boys and their coach-and-four were saved by a group of scuba divers, throwing diving into the global limelight, and captivating the world. One of the rescue divers sat down and told us about his part in the rescue …
Part 2- Interview by Russell Clark
DIVER: When did they decide anowaa | Erik : At this point in time we were running out of options. Drilling wasnat an option. Leaving them in wasnat an option and swimming them out also wasnat an option.A With the rains merely a few days away, there was little choice left.
As I said before, even the very rare examples of cave rescues before involved rescuing a person already trained in cave diving , not 13 sons who canat swim. Panic was easily the biggest danger both the kids and the rescue divers faced. If the kids panicked- it was game over. And them panicking was a 100% certainty. The only style to maybe make it happen was to pretty much fully sedate the kids.
Obviously, theyad be unable to hold a regulator in their mouth, so specialized full face masks were tweeked to postive pessure( pretty much minor freeflowing) to allow the sedated kids to breathe with lower respitory rates.
The masks arenat deisgned for 13 year-old Thai sons. After a successful day in a local pond testing the equipment on some local kids, it became a bit more apparent that the idea might work.
It says something when sedating a bunch of kids, tying them up, and dragging them 4km[ 2.5 miles] out of a cave is the best option. It proves how absolute shit the alternatives were if this was the best choice of action. It may appear logical now in hindsight, but at the time it seemed pretty messed up.
So much thought went into it, to the point where the kids were going to drool when sedated, salivate into the masks, so they actually gave them another drug to reduce the saliva buildup. It was quite phenomenal as we went through the thought process. They thought of everything to the best they could. Dr. Harris and the team did some amazing work.
Were their eyes open ?
Sleep is probably a good word to describe the country the kids is now in. There was slight motion most periods to be fair. They were face down in the water with the configuration set up, and we only really pulled them out when we needed to change tanks. We would pull them out, take the mask off because there was no exhaust valve on it- which was actually quite an ordeal, you had to have one person supporting the kid, one changing tanks. It was a two of three person task to get some of these simple things done.
Did the kids have any kind of BCD?
They had kinda an oral inflate Navy flotation device. Kinda like a snorkel vest, they had it strapped to their front.
How were the kids positioned ?
We needed to make sure they were sedated but not too sedated so they wouldnat be able to breathe, which is why they used a special mix including ketamine and few other things; as I said, they thought of everything. But because that drug only lasts a limited time, we had to re-administer it as they ran through the cave, which is where I could assist as a support diver in the cave. We had small medical stations put up and would inject the kids if needed. I donat guess I need to explain that this is outside my normal skill set.
Obviously we were worried that they would panic if they woke up, there are so many different line traps and rocks. We didnat want their limbs get caught as the came through so we had their arms and feet tied, and the actual tank was bungeed to their stomach. They were lying face down with flotation on their chest, full face mask with the tank on the their chest, and then their hands tied together and their feet tied together.
In the part of the cave where I was, Iad be standing next to them dragging them. They had a handle virtually on their shoulder blades. But for some of the restrictions theyad have to be put in front of the diver at times, or below, or off to the side. It involved constant adjustment.
Did it get easier ?
Just because the first four attained it, it doesnat give you any higher or lower odds of being successful with the others. Subconsciously you realise the scheme runs, so you are more optimistic. But all it takes is for one incorrect move- bump a kidas head and the mask inundations and itas game over. So the inherent danger for each child didnat diminish at all. After each day you donat celebrate too much as itas equally as dangerous on 2 as day 3.
Each child would be given one primary diver who would be with them from the beginning to the end; they would know exactly how much drugs theyad have, they could monitor the gas better, and deal with the welfare of the child easier. Some dry sections where the kids came up, we would set him on a stretcher and carry him across 150 m[ 450 feet] of dry land inside the cave, and put him back in the water. The primary rescue diver would be taking his own tanks off and strolling across to get back in at the same time.
My section in chamber six was about 150 m[ 500 ft] long and in a position where we had to deal with quite a few gas alters. We had a muddy little mound to one side where I could sit while waiting. I was either simply moving the kids along to give the primary divers a much needed break, administering the sedation, altering tanks, or a combination of all three. The idea was the child would never have to stop, if the primary was changing his tanks, I was moving forward and he would catch up, give him a handshake, and send him on his route until he pops out 50 m[ 150 feet] on the other side where thereas another supporting diver waiting for him. It was a relay.
The hardest part is the lack of communication, which adds such a massive stress onto this. You can put everything is on a timer, but sometimes it takes half an hour longer to swim based on flow. Youare sitting there waiting and know the kids should be arriving around this time, but they were two and half hours late on the first day, youare sitting there going, aSomethingas definitely not right.a But some things take longer. The swim in with the extra gear for the kids, itas the first time theyave set gear on the kids- they were putting them into wetsuits because they were worried about hypothermia- theyare going a little slower because it is the first time. But youare sitting there two hours later and you can only think something has gone massively incorrect. Youare in control of that 150 m[ 500 ft] A gap, but as soon as they leave you, that kid has another two hours of diving and one hour hiking, and you donat know if they built it.
Could the communication problems be solved ?
Towards the end they ran fibre optics into chamber three so they could communicate with the military, but no traditional dive comms would work. Radio had to be hard-wired in and that would have just become another entanglement hazard.
I remember when you popped your head out of the water at the end of the day, you could tell everyone was super experienced at what they do, they didnat pounce on you. Youad take your helmet off and pass it to them, then theread be 30 seconds of complete stillnes and youad look at them and say, aGive it to me.a Theyad say, a3 for 3a, or a4 for 4a.
What did you think when you first assured a kid coming towards you ?
Ah man. It is a movie-like moment that youall never forget because it was so surreal. Jason was the first diver to come through. I recollect how slow he was walking. Strategic. These guys are so meticulous and so in control. Thereas no rush , no anxiety. Youare thinking they donat need to rush because either everything is fine, or because the kid is dead already and it doesnat matter. You see this silhouette with water up to the waist and a cave light behind them only slowly coming up to you and then you ensure the bubbles comes here the kidas mask underwater and youare like, fuck! This is actually going to work. It will be etched in my memory forever.
What do you do when you are in the water for hours at a time ?
The idea was to have about 30- 45 minutes between each kid. The first couple went as planned but then we had 1 hour and 45 minute gap. You think somethingas incorrect. Youare in pairs so youare talking, but your focus is on this dark corridor. Your eyes are playing tricks on you, you maintain thinking you find places of light and there are little drips of water coming from the cave roof that are echoing through. Itas a very exhausting place to be sitting for eight hours.
What were the kids, and you guys, breathing ?
For most divers itas like nails on a chalkboard when the mainstream media says aoxygen tanksa! I find a lot of divers on social media saying, aItas not oxygen, itas air! a But the kids actually were pretty much on pure oxygen [8 0% based on the logistics of blending and filling it ]. This was done on purpose as we were no deeper than six metres[ 18 feet ]. There were no PO2 issues to deal with, but if the kids did have a problem or drown, it would be easier for us to perform CPR if they were a little more saturated. We were on air-based on logistics, we didnat have any decompression obligations at six metres[ 18 feet ].
How long to take all the kids out ?
After the first day we had a debriefing to build things more efficient. The decision was to keep everyone in the exact same stances- if it ainat breach donat fix it.
My partner Ivan from day one got sick, so Jim Warny who was one of the last three UK cave rescue divers to join was positoned with me on day two. He had a history with the guys.
It took us three days in total. Four the first day, four the second day, four and the coach-and-four on the third day.
After we got all the kids out we came back to chamber three and all the UK guys were still inside. Sometimes for us as the support team, these guys had all gone for the day when we arrived, as it would take us another two hours to clean up and swim out. This time everyone was still there and they brought us in a nice bucket of KFC! The US commander said if we pulled this off head bring us a snippet of whisky, so we aimed up having a little celebration shoot of Jack Daniels at the end!
So that was it then, undertaking done ?
Actually there were still the four Thai Navy SEALs that had expended nine days with kids still in there. They were told after the last child left to wait three hours so there was no bottle neck, then swim out.
The US sons were on orders to stay. We could have left. But those sons helped us a lot so we waited to make sure we strolled out together, especially with the accident days previous.
After all the kids left “were having” 30 or 40 Thai marines coming back here into chamber three and start tearing down the makeshift trauma station and carrying the tanks out. I remember sitting there talking to the US commander and 60 -8 0 tanks are being loaded out of there so fast. aMake sure they leave some tanks for us, thereas no phase in us being here if we canat go in because there arenat any tanks.a We turn our back for two seconds and every tank from chamber three is gone. Now if thereas an emergency we canat genuinely go in.
The timing was surreal with this whole situation. Thereas three massive pumps operating for three weeks pumping water out- one billion litres[ 264 million gallons ]. We “re waiting for” the remaining Thai Navy SEALs to swim out and we hear this massive fissure and one of the couplings on the pump hose transgresses and it starts spewing water out the side. Two or three minutes later the first Thai Navy SEAL popped out. At this point in time, chamber three to the entrance was a walk out. Four or five days previously you had to dive from three to two , now thereas a two foot[ 60 cm] air pocket you can float through, which is why the air tanks were taken away.
But now pump one breakings. The second Navy SEAL arrives, and the second pump breakings! These things have been running nonstop for two and half weeks, and in the span of five minutes two of the three pumps break and start smashing water all over the cave, to the point where we can see the water level rising. And now sump three to sump two is very quickly becoming a swim, and we have no tanks and thereas fifteen of us in there.
We waited to the very last minute for the last SEAL. We had to leave all our dive gear in there, and it was literally a mad operated- we were swimming across and you could see the rising water level close it off. Maybe ten minutes to get all fifteen people out of there, and then it inundated. We would have been stuck in there.
Some of the UK guys had actually heard some of the pumps had violated and stated to walk back to see if we needed help. The timing of it and the circumstances just didnat stop until the very end.
After we got them out, four hours later it started pissing rainfall. If we were one day late startinga |. We maybe got the kids out with eight hours to spare.
So where is your dive gear now ?
Itas still in there! Iave get thousands of dollars worth of gear in there at sump three. I sort of know where it got left, we were so worried about getting everyone out. A friend is going back soon- he has special permission to be the first one in once itas dry, so hopefully heas going to find my purse of dive gear! It will be a good ad for Apeks if my regs still work!