Untold stories of Herculean cave rescue in Thailand

The heroic story of the Thai cave rescue has been told a number of times. We’ve read and heard about the Two British cave divers, John Volanthen and Richard Stanton, and their Herculean efforts to rescue the 12 boys and their football coach from the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai Province in northern Thailand. But what about the untold stories, the tears, tantrums, and tragedies? How did they get there and what was going on outside of the cave as the rescue got underway?

The day the boys and their coach went missing, June 23, 2018, was the 17th birthday of Peerapat “Night” Sompiangjai. Night’s family, in a rural village in Mae Sai district, had bought several presents and a SpongeBob SquarePants birthday cake ready in preparation for when he finished football training with the Wild Boars and their assistant coach, Ekkapol “Ake” Chantawong.

But instead of going home when football practice ended, the boys and their coach went on a bike ride up into the forested hills to explore the Tham Luang cave. They left their bikes at the mouth of the cave and entered, as they had done several times before.

Night, his coach, and his teammates would not emerge until two weeks later.

Untold stories of Herculean cave rescue in Thailand | News by Thaiger Untold stories of Herculean cave rescue in Thailand | News by Thaiger

People have gone missing before and once monsoon season starts in July, the cave goes from benign to incredibly dangerous.

The cave can flood up to 5 metres during the rainy season, and it is advised not to enter between May and October.

The parents of the Wild Boars know this and headed to the cave when they discovered where their boys had gone through a group chat message. They found the bikes, the bags, and some football trainers outside.

They raised the alarm.

What happened next has gone down in folklore.

Deep inside the cave, the Wild Boars found themselves in trouble. Coach Ake, a former monk, taught the kids meditation techniques – to help them stay calm and use as little air as possible – and told them to lie still to conserve their strength.

Outside the cave, a full-blown rescue operation was unfolding. The elite Thai Navy Seals, the national police, and other rescue teams were called in, as well as local volunteers also pitched in.

One volunteer admitted, “At the start, no one really had any idea what to do.”

Untold stories of Herculean cave rescue in Thailand | News by Thaiger Untold stories of Herculean cave rescue in Thailand | News by Thaiger Untold stories of Herculean cave rescue in Thailand | News by Thaiger

The boys’ families kept vigil, praying at the mouth of the cave. One of them was the godmother of coach Ake, Tum Kantawong. Every day she went up the mountain, carrying fruits, incense, and candles.

“It was to show respect to the spirit that protects the cave. I asked her to protect the 13 kids.”

Worried teachers from the schools the Wild Boars joined the vigil.

School administrator Ampin Saenta said, “We wanted to be the first to welcome the boys when they came out.”

Villagers rallied together, donating money and hundreds of packages of food to the relatives of the boys and their coach.

A small Ikea-type self-assembled makeshift town grew out of the rural country park by the cave entrance.

Food stalls were set up serving free drinks, and food. Even the dirty country park toilets were cleaned by volunteers. Everyone mucked in! Drivers were offering free lifts to workers who needed to get up and down the mountain and even a laundry service was set up to clean the clothes of the dirty workers.

Spirits were high in the community but then there was a setback. One of the rescue team died.

Former Navy Seal diver Saman Gunan died on July 6, while on a routine run to deliver air tanks to the boys, he lost consciousness after running out of air for himself.

Saman’s dive buddy pulled him out and tried to revive him but he could not be saved. He was only 37 years old.

His wife, Waleeporn Gunan, said, “Saman once said we never know when we’re going to die… so we need to cherish every day.”

The death, devastating as it was for the family, revealed the danger of the rescue mission, and the risks facing the boys. If a man like Saman, a fit and healthy diver who had also represented Thailand in triathlons, what chance would a group of teenage boys with no diving experience?

The classmates of the Wild Boars sang songs of encouragement into the cave, folded paper cranes, and posted messages of hope on school noticeboards, and they prayed, and they prayed and they prayed.

And lo and behold, their prayers were answered, that, and thanks to the rescue team.

Untold stories of Herculean cave rescue in Thailand | News by Thaiger

Read more about the amazing rescue that has now been turned into a movie by Academy award-winning director Ron Howard,


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Bob Scott

Bob Scott is an experienced writer and editor with a passion for travel. Born and raised in Newcastle, England, he spent more than 10 years in Asia. He worked as a sports writer in the north of England and London before relocating to Asia. Now he resides in Bangkok, Thailand, where he is the Editor-in-Chief for The Thaiger English News. With a vast amount of experience from living and writing abroad, Bob Scott is an expert on all things related to Asian culture and lifestyle.

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