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.
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.
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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.
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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.
Two British divers ultimately found the entire soccer team alive on July 2, approximately four kilometres into the 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.
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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.
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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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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.
Instead, they’ll continue celebrating their escape from the cave by enjoying good food for the first time in weeks.
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— With files from Reuters and The Associated Press