tham luang caves

'Primal fears come out': The conditions inside the Thai cave and how the rescuers are getting the boys out

Brían MacCoitir of the Irish Cave Rescue Organisation says the rescue mission is one of the most complex he has ever seen.

Thailand cave rescue UPI / PA Images UPI / PA Images / PA Images

TWO DAYS OF rescue missions have now successfully recovered eight of the 12 Thai boys who are trapped with their football coach deep inside the labyrinthine Tham Luang cave complex in the Doi Nang Non mountain range in northern Thailand.

The rescued Moo Pa (Wild Boars) academy team players were each taken directly to hospital after spending more than two weeks underground.

The head of the mission said today that the four boys who emerged yesterday are in good health and were demanding fried rice as they look to recover from their ordeal.

The five people remaining in the cave are also said to be in good health and the rescuers will resume the mission tomorrow.

The team became trapped in the cave on June 23 as the first downpour of the rainy season cut them off from the world. They were missing for nine days before they were eventually found, huddled on a muddy ledge, by a specialist team of British divers.

John Volanthen and Rick Stanton were the first to reach the boys. The pair are the world’s leading cave rescue experts. Together they designed their own equipment and have used it to assist rescues and body recoveries in caves around the world, including in Ireland.

Thailand Cave Search Richard Stanton (left) and John Volanthen, arrive in northern Thailand. AP / PA Images AP / PA Images / PA Images

‘Primal fears’

Brían MacCoitir of the Irish Cave Rescue Organisation (ICRO) has travelled around the world exploring unmapped caves, including several trips to caves in Bangladesh and Papua New Guinea. He says the conditions inside the cave would have put the boys under immense psychological pressure.

“There’s no way the little lights they had for their walk in the cave would have lasted the length of time that they have been in there. They have been in darkness for days and days and days,” Brían says.

If they don’t have a watch they would have no idea if it is night or day. Can they even see their watches? When water is rushing in a cave it can be incredibly noisy but when it’s still it is deathly quiet. They’re all sitting on that small ledge. It’s possible that there’s bats. The mind can play tricks in these conditions. Primal fears come out. Then after sitting in total darkness for days you see this glow light up the chamber and it’s coming towards you. Could you imagine that? You may believe it’s a guardian angel and then it’s a Brit who starts talking to you in a language you don’t understand.

Tham Luang is a well-known cave complex that is regularly visited during the dry season. The entrance is quite large and then it gets much narrower the farther it winds into the mountain.

The cave is likely to stay filled with water until November and with heavy rain forecast for Wednesday it’s possible that the ledge the team are perched on will also be submerged.

Cave diving is highly technical pursuit and rescue missions can be extremely complex and demanding.

AP / PA Images AP / PA Images / PA Images

Cave diving techniques are significantly different from those in open water diving so the majority of cave rescuers are not open water divers. For instance, unlike open water divers, cave divers carry their air supply on their side or in their hands because they need to be able to maneuver in whichever way the cave allows.

The death last week of Saman Kunan, a former Thai navy seal, illustrated starkly how dangerous the mission is. Kunan died from a lack of air while replenishing air tanks.

‘Panic is a killer’

It takes around 11 hours for the dive team to carry out each of the rescues. The divers are guided by a static rope that has been fixed along the route and each boy has two divers leading them out.

They are tethered to the lead diver who carries their air supply and essentially pulls them along. The second diver follows behind to keep a look out for potential problems. The teams communicate with the surface using low-frequency radios which can travel through hundreds of feet of rock.

During the rescue the boys are wearing full face scuba masks which allow the lead diver to talk to them.

“It’s a completely alien environment,” Brían explained. “Visibility is extremely limited and they’re breathing through this mask that makes strange sounds. It’s vital that they keep calm so they can breathe. Panic is a killer.

It’s obvious that the boys are part of a team. Even in the photos where we saw them smiling we can tell that they’re resilient and they are supporting each other. It’s one of the most challenging rescue missions I’ve come across. Things have really worked for them so far.

Thailand cave rescue Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

Brían is effusive in his praise of the British duo who have played a key role in the rescue mission. ICRO worked with the team in the recovery of the body of Artur Kozlowski, an experienced Polish diver, from Pollonora cave in Co Galway in 2011.

“They are absolutely at the top of their game,” he says. “The difficulty of the operation cannot be underestimated. They are the best and most experienced in the world. They are expert risk managers. Cave rescues are extremely technical and there’s no room for error. You can’t praise them enough.”

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