Inside the Daring Thai Cave Rescue

A rescue mission in Thailand thought to be near-impossible has ended in success. 12 boys and their soccer coach are now safe after spending more than two weeks trapped in a flooded cave. The top person overseeing the operation sat down with NHK and talked about how difficult the work was.

The boys and their coach were trapped in a cave system in the northern province of Chiang Rai on June 23rd after heavy rain inundated the site. They were rescued by a team of Thai Navy and foreign divers by July 10th. Water pumps draining the area failed shortly after everyone had left the cave, suggesting the operation was a close call.

The officer in command of the Thai Navy SEALs, Rear Admiral Arpakorn Yukong Kaew, sat down with NHK. He said, though he told the public that the rescuers would never give up, the odds of rescuing the boys seemed slim on the 7th and 8th days of the operation. The cave system was increasingly filled with water as the rainy season drew close.

Hard decision

Arpakorn says he initially struggled with despair at how difficult the operation was. There were concerns about making the boys dive through narrow, submerged passageways. He said nearly 60 percent of the roughly 5-kilometer exit route required diving.

He said the mission was a race against time. He said the oxygen level inside the cave was only 15%, and a further decrease would've put the boys in danger. 21% is normal and anything lower than 18% is unsafe. The boys needed to be guided out as soon as possible.

Fortunately, water levels went down on July 8th, thanks to a break in the rainy weather--and continued pumping.

Arpakorn warned against delaying the mission because of the falling oxygen levels. Thai authorities decided to let the boys dive through the narrow submerged passageways. They were given full-face diving masks and were guided out by two divers each.

Rescuers carried the boys on stretchers for the final 1.5 kilometers of the journey to reduce their physical burden.

The boys were brought out over the course of three days. The situation was most tense for the last 5.

One diver said the continued rainfall made the operation a battle against weather. The diver said water levels inside the cave were rising.

ABC News in the US said water levels started rising again as the last 5 were being brought out due to malfunctioning pumps. A rescue base inside the cave was flooded, and water started flowing toward the cave entrance. Rescuers reportedly fled, leaving air tanks and other equipment behind.

Arpakorn said the Thai side lacked the equipment necessary and he was grateful for the help from other countries.

"The good news of the year."

Australia was one of the countries that sent rescue workers, dispatching an 18-member rescue team that included 7 divers. They belonged to Australia's federal police and military.

Federal police commander Glen McEwen held a news conference in Thailand following the completion of the mission.

He said the team arrived in late June, and found the complexity, scale, and risk of the operation unprecedented. He said the situation was extremely difficult, as the cave system was narrow, flooded, and winding.

McEwen said his team's task involved long stays in the cave, moving approximately 20 tons of equipment, including air tanks, water pumps and food, through the system.

But he said it was an honor to take part, and called the success "the good news of the year."

Boys in Good Health

A Thai health ministry official commented on the boys' condition on July 11th, saying they were in good health. The official said this was probably because of how they were cared for inside the cave.

The first 8 are recovering and are able to talk and eat. The last 5 are reportedly being given antibiotics and screened for infections, but the official said they are also in good health and none have hypothermia.

The official said their mental condition is also good because they went through the ordeal together, and not alone.

The boys will reportedly leave hospital in a week, and the ones with lower risk of infections will be allowed to be reunited with their families.