Outdoor adventurer and writer Jon Krakauer’s account of the 1996 rogue storm disaster that was Mount Everest mountainclimbing that year literally kept me up at night. Eight people, including the leader of Krakauer’s own expedition team, died on the world’s highest mountain, where bodies remain frozen to this day. I have never forgotten his description of a man, thought lost, stumbling into camp with one arm frozen perpendicular to his body.
I had the same reaction to what could have been the tragedy of the Wild Boar soccer team in a cave in northern Thailand, until it wasn’t. Once the rescues began, I woke up several times a night to check online for the latest update. I suspect I am among millions – maybe billions – who were doing the same thing.
Hearts around the world leapt when the first four boys got out, sang with the extraction of the next four a day later and soared when the remaining four boys and the coach reached daylight and fresh air one day later.
The Wild Boar story had heartwrenching dramatic elements. Missing children and frantic parents. Found children in profound danger in one of the most challenging caves in the world. Brave rescuers working against the clock and steep odds – children who could not swim; cold, murky and rising waters with rushing currents strong enough to rip off divers’ face masks; tight spaces; diseases caused by cold, damp conditions, rodents and bats; decreasing oxygen levels in the cave where the Wild Boars were trapped; and perhaps most daunting of all, the pressing reality that such a rescue had never been attempted before and was more likely to fail than to succeed.
In truth, the rescue was a miracle, given what we now know.
In a world racked with division and distrust, the mission worked in part because of cooperation of people from many nations, including the United States, and many agencies, organizations and individuals doing all sorts of jobs. According to The Wall Street Journal, 10,000 people were involved in the rescue effort, including volunteer cooks serving 5,000 meals a day. Seven hundred oxygen tanks were rounded up, with 500 of them being placed inside the cave every 25 meters. The tanks had to be retrieved, refilled with compressed air and replaced time and time again. Medical personnel rallied, including a doctor who stayed inside the cave monitoring the boys’ conditions until they were taken to safety.
With monsoon rains underway and more coming, rescuers began pumping water from the cave and ultimately pumped 1 billion – yes, with a “b” – liters of water out of the cave.
Because the boys are young, the adult, full-face masks to be used in the evacuation were tested on local volunteer children in a swimming pool. By pulling the five straps as tight as possible, rescuers decided to give the masks a go.
As the drama unfolded, speculation abounded about which boys would be rescued first and who would remain in the cave until rescue divers could rest, eat and return with replenished air supplies. Would the weakest go first or the strongest? In the end, the Wild Boars decided themselves. The Wall Street Journal reported the boys in the cave gave the Thai SEAL divers a list of their names in the order to be evacuated.
Most chilling of all is this. The pumps that extracted a billion liters of water from the flooded cave failed hours after the last boys and their coach were pulled to safety, sending torrents of water back into the cave.
The New York Times put it this way. “Many of the divers and residents of the nearby northern Thai town of Mae Sai saw the last-minute flood as a sign that divine protection had ceased only after all were safe.”
“I still can’t believe it worked.” Thai General Chalongchai Chaiyakham’s reaction resonated in ears around the world.
Now that it is all over, readers are paging Jon Krakauer with this message: “Please, please write this book!”
PHOTO CREDIT: Air Force photo by Capt. Jessica Tait