In the week of the World Cup football elimination round in Russia there was only one team that the world was rooting for — the Wild Boars. Twelve boys and their coach were stuck deep in a cave system in northern Thailand. For days they had been presumed dead but they were found, huddled together on a muddy ledge and so commenced an epic of courage, skill, determination, cooperation individually and internationally that culminated on Tuesday with the happiest possible outcome. As they now recuperate in hospital quarantined by Thai authorities being ultra-careful — nasties like leptospirosis and ‘Cave Disease’ are a possibility — it is worth reflecting on some of the lesser-publicised aspects of the operation.
Firstly and perhaps most importantly all of the divers with the exception of Thai military personnel were volunteers and moreover none of them were ‘paid professionals’. Cave diving is not what most of them did for a living, though several are involved in various aspects of the diving industry. The two Brits at the sharp end were a retired firefighter and an IT specialist. Essentially they are hobbyists, they go into deep dark narrow holes in the ground for the fun of it. Nobody makes them do it, and nobody paid them either. They are members of voluntary organisations that receive no government funding
Cavers tend to be a reticent bunch. Nothing flash about them. They have none of the visual impact of mountaineers, the Big Hill climbers that crack the hardest routes on the likes of Big E or the vertical madness of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, or even the sea-cliffs of the English south coast where climbs with names like ‘Dream of White Horses’ and ‘Embuggerance’ attract monosyllabic gum-chewers every weekend. That sort of climbing attracts audiences, and in recent years sport climbing at speed has developed at a considerable rate. None of that for the men and women down the hole. No sponsored races through claustrophobic slots dragging scuba gear and with the risk of entombment always a possibility.
Mountain and cave rescue teams (MRTs and CMTs) now exist worldwide (I was a volunteer on the Langdale and Ambleside MRT for ten years) all funded by public donation and providing an essential service at no cost to the public purse. So when the call went out for cave divers it was answered by the best of the best. They converged — at their own expense — on northern Thailand and quickly organised themselves into what became a team of over 100 divers and hundreds more ancillary rescuers.
For a change, the Thai bureaucracy in an outbreak of common sense left it to the professionals. There was a front-of-house bureaucrat that handled the briefings and updates and the operation nominally was under the Thai Seal’s command, but it was the pros that were running the show. They did it without fuss, planned meticulously across nationalities and languages but pooling universal skills that read — across all rescues — and it all came together.
The dive team will now disperse, go back to the anonymity of otherwise unremarkable lives. Day on day they put their own lives at risk, pushing themselves to the limits of the possible and in the opinion of some beyond the impossible. There will be interviews in their homelands, perhaps some sort of public award or recognition. There will almost certainly be a book in the future, possibly several, and the media will make the lives of the survivors and their families a misery for years to come.
The media were held at bay during the operation but eventually the boys will have to rejoin the world, go back to school and there will be a pack of ravening journos more fearsome than any horror they met under the ground. The experience of survival is going to be as difficult to survive as being hauled through a fifteen-inch sump in total darkness attached to a 9mm rope and sucking for dear life on an oxygen set.
All’s well that ends well, goes the saying. It was not without cost. Sanam Gunan died when his oxygen ran out. To his memory and sacrifice, this piece is dedicated.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 12th, 2018.