July 10, 2018 11:27 am
Updated: July 24, 2018 8:19 am

Thai cave rescue: How divers saved 13 lives in a ‘unique’ operation

WATCH ABOVE: An ambulance leaves the site where 12 soccer players and their coach were rescued from a flooded cave in Thailand


Twelve boys and their soccer coach spent 15 days huddled together in the mud and the dark, trapped in one of Thailand‘s most complex cave systems by sudden flooding in the north of the country.

Search teams didn’t even know for certain that they were alive for the first week.

READ MORE: All 12 boys, soccer coach rescued from flooded Thai cave

Nevertheless, every member of the Wild Boars soccer team had made it out alive by Tuesday, thanks to the tireless efforts of the Thai-led operation that pulled off a complex rescue that captivated the world’s attention. Only one individual — a former Thai Navy SEAL — died in the effort.

WATCH: Australians honoured for services during Thai cave rescue

Here’s how the rescue played out.

How they found the team

The Wild Boar soccer players, ages 11-16, and their 25-year-old coach were first reported missing on June 23.

Search efforts quickly narrowed in on the Tham Luang cave near where they were last seen at practice. Rescue teams found bags and sandals inside the cave on Day 2 of the search, but their progress through the cave system was hampered by heavy flooding.

WATCH BELOW: Calgary company creates map of Thai cave system

More than 1,000 volunteers, including military personnel from Thailand, the U.S. and the U.K., joined in the search on June 27. China and Australia also sent teams to help as the search efforts stretched into July.

In this undated photo released by Royal Thai Navy on Saturday, July 7, 2018, Thai rescue team members walk inside a cave where 12 boys and their soccer coach have been trapped since June 23, in Mae Sai, Chiang Rai province, northern Thailand.

Royal Thai Navy via AP

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Two British divers ultimately found the entire soccer team alive on July 2, approximately four kilometres into the cave.

READ MORE: Thai cave rescue: Here’s how Thai soccer team became trapped in cave

It’s unclear at this point how much food and water the boys had with them before they were found by the rescue team.

How they kept the boys alive

Thai Navy SEAL divers carried out several supply runs to the trapped team, bringing them high-calorie food, water and blankets to help them endure the conditions while a rescue operation was put together.

Several water pumps were used throughout the rescue effort, to prevent the constant heavy rains from flooding the pocket of air where the boys were trapped.

WATCH BELOW: Doctors treat boys trapped in cave in Thailand

Divers who visited the boys also spent time teaching them how to use oxygen masks, in anticipation of the rescue effort.

Meanwhile, planners found themselves racing the clock against rising floodwaters and an impending storm.

“We are at war with water and time,” acting regional Gov. Narongsak Osatankorn said Sunday.

Rescue divers carried out several letters written by members of the trapped team, including one note from the coach, who apologized to parents of the boys under his charge.

How they got them out

Flooding remained a major obstacle throughout the rescue effort, forcing rescuers to devise a plan to get the boys out through an underwater route.

After days of planning, divers set up an underwater relay system of cached oxygen tanks and tethers to ferry out the boys.

READ MORE: A long, winding look inside a virtual cave like the one 12 Thai boys have to escape

Each boy was provided with an oxygen mask and escorted along the tether line by divers in front of and behind them. The route to freedom led through an underwater, V-shaped tunnel that forced divers and soccer players to pass through one at a time.

WATCH BELOW: Crews faced unique challenges in Thai cave rescue

Nine members of the British Cave Rescue Council (BCRC) were in Thailand to help with the rescue, BCRC spokesperson Tony Haigh said.

“It’s a very unusual situation,” Haigh told Global News by phone on Tuesday, from his home in Wales.

“To have children rescued by cave divers — I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

WATCH: Ambulances carrying last members of Thai soccer team previously trapped in cave arrive at hospital

Haigh, who has participated in several cave rescues himself, says most operations typically involve retrieving a single injured caver, or helping a small party that has become lost.

“I’ve never come across something where they’ve actually had to bring people out [underwater] who weren’t divers,” he said.

Eighteen divers brought the first four boys out on Sunday, but the rest of the soccer players were forced to wait while rescuers resupplied the escape route.

WATCH BELOW: Video shows rescue of boys from Thai cave

Rescuers came out with four more boys on Monday, followed by the remaining four and their coach on Tuesday.

Haigh said it was the largest underwater cave rescue he’s aware of.

“This is actually unique,” he said.

READ MORE: What Canadians should know about safely exploring caves after Thai rescue

Officials did not release the identities of the first boys who were brought out, out of concern for the families of those still trapped in the cave at the time.

Thai Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha said on Tuesday the boys were given anti-anxiety medication to help with the rescue. He denied accusations that they had been tranquillized for the perilous operation.

WATCH BELOW: 3D model of Thailand’s Tham Luang cave complex

One casualty

Former Thai Navy SEAL Saman Kunan died Thursday night while preparing for the rescue.

Saman had just finished laying oxygen tanks along the escape route, and was on his way out of the cave when he passed out due to lack of oxygen from his own air tank. Rescuers pulled him from the water and administered first aid, but they could not revive him.

WATCH BELOW: Casket ceremony held for former Thai Navy SEAL

Arpakorn Yuukongkaew, commander of the Thai Navy SEAL unit, hailed Saman Kunan’s sacrifice at a news conference the following day.

“We will not panic, we will not stop our mission and we will not let his life be in vain,” the commander said.

Out of the cave, but not out of the woods

One does not simply walk away from two weeks in a cave.

All 12 players and their coach will remain in quarantine for approximately a week, until authorities can build up their immune systems and help their eyes adjust to the light.

Family members were permitted to see the first few rescued boys, but they were not allowed to touch them out of fear of causing an infection.

The boys are being observed for signs of histoplasmosis, a.k.a. “cave disease,” which is caused by spores found in bat or bird feces.

The quarantine period means the boys won’t be able to accept an invitation to celebrate with the winning World Cup team.

READ MORE: Rescued Thai soccer team won’t be able to make World Cup final after invite: FIFA

Instead, they’ll continue celebrating their escape from the cave by enjoying good food for the first time in weeks.

WATCH BELOW: Thai boys quarantined after cave rescue

— With files from Reuters and The Associated Press

© 2018 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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