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“The Rescue” – What really happened inside Tham Luang caves?



We all followed the events of the cave rescue. We think we know what happened. But we don’t.

“The Rescue”, by directors Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, has peered behind the heroic narrative that was cultivated at the time of the Chiang Rai Tham Luang cave rescue in July 2018.

13 young men – 12 teenagers and their 24 year old soccer coach – rode their bikes to the Tham Luang Caves in Chiang Rai, Northern Thailand, for a quick excursion following training of the Mu Pa (wild boars) team. It was Saturday, June 23, 2018. Following torrential monsoonal rain, trapping the team inside, they wouldn’t be seen for a harrowing 9 days, until a team of volunteer cave divers happened upon them. This film explains how improbable finding them was.

It would be another 8 days before an unlikely, and totally implausible, rescue mission eventually brought them all out. Alive.

“The Rescue” shows that this first happenstance, finding the young men, and then actually getting them out alive, was much, much more tenuous and complicated than anyone wanted to admit at the time. The world media gravitated to the compelling human stories – the lost boys, the international co-operation, the worried families, the personalities – to weave and broadcast daily 3 minute grabs about heroism, Thai culture and hope.

We now know the reality was very different. Touched on in the film “The Cave”, the whole search, and then rescue, was a mess of Thai politics, misplaced pride and incompetence. Not a popular conclusion to come to, but without the international volunteer cave divers that were flown in (reluctantly by many of the Thais leading the mission), the 12 teenagers and their coach would have surely perished. Even the valiant and well-trained Thai Navy Seals were completely unprepared for a mission so fraught with danger and outside of their standard training.

“The Rescue” has been skilfully crafted and co-directed by Academy Award winners Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (“Free Solo”) to authentically recreate the situation inside the caves, then use interviews with the cave divers to retell the story. The recreated scenes are seamlessly interwoven with real video at the time.

And you will learn things you never knew about the mission, particularly about the almost impossible method of extraction that, even by their best estimates, had a minuscule chance of success. But, in the end, it was the only chance they had.

Rick Stanton was a retired British firefighter who had spent 40 years diving deep into lonely, claustrophobic caves around the world. Fortuitously, his girlfriend was a resident of Chiang Rai, so he heard about the search situation early on. Rick teamed with another cave diving mate, John Volanthen, to fly to northern Thailand to see if they could help.

There are also never-before-seen conversations between the divers, that chanced upon the team on Day 9 of the search, totally different and revealing compared to the short snippets we saw at the time. 

The clips, from Rick’s phone camera, tell us a lot more about the divers and their fears. And the calmness and composure of the trapped young men. We see his attempt to rally the spirits of the 13 team members before saying goodbye with a promise of imminent rescue.

In one of the interviews Rick Stanton, slowly swimming back through the maze of jagged rocks, mud and swirling waters to the cave mouth, realised, having found them, that it would be virtually impossible to get them out.

“Looking into their faces I realised we might be the only ones that ever see them. What in earth are we going to do now?”

Another revelation is the rescue, a few days before the effort to extract the team began, of a smaller rescue of four adults stuck inside the cave. They would have to swum out where they would be immersed in the caves muddy waters for 30-40 seconds. Some of the adults, even after the process was thoroughly explained, panicked, ripping off their face mask. If not for the brevity of the dive, and the professionalism of the divers, they would have drowned.

For the 13 soccer team members trapped 2 kilometres inside the cave, they were a lot younger and they would be underwater for up to 2 to 3 hours! How could this even be possible?

“We were brutally honest, we promised multiple fatalities.”

For the re-enactments, Vasarhelyi and Chin used Rick, John and other divers who were involved in the rescue – the actors playing themselves and their frightening predicament. It also follows the completely outrageous idea from 2 Australian doctors (also cave divers) who came up with an implausible solution to extract the young men.

It’s visceral, raw and real. Highly recommended.


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Tim Newton has lived in Thailand since 2011. An Australian, he has worked in the media, principally radio and TV, for 42 years. He has won the Deutsche Welle Award for best radio talk program (public radio Australia), presented over 11,000 radio news bulletins, 3,950 in Thailand alone, hosted 1050 daily TV news programs and produced 2,100 videos, TV commercials and documentaries. He also reported for CNN, Deutsche Welle TV, CBC, Australia's ABC TV and Australian radio during the 2018 Cave Rescue and other major stories in Thailand.

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