WHEN the 12 boys and their football coach embarked on their trek into the Tham Luang cave, few were aware. But by yesterday, the entire world was rejoicing their return after the most challenging underground rescue in history.
It was a great escape. There was a palpable risk of floodwaters resurging, sealing them off once more and dooming them to death in the hostile conditions deep beneath the Doi Nang Non mountain. On Friday, Saman Kunan, a former Thai Navy Seal, died along the rescue route. Extraction involved navigation through winding, jagged submerged passageways over a 1.7km stretch.
Even with the World Cup playing out in Russia, attention had to be turned to the courage of the “Wild Boars” football team. The rescue became a rare moment when the world showed up for a good cause.
British divers found the boys last week, hungry and huddled in darkness on a muddy bank in the chamber. German cave-diving expert Nick Vollmar gave advice. American technology magnate Elon Musk offered a specially-designed submarine. More than 30 US military personnel from the US Pacific Command were brought to the site. Additionally, a throng of engineers and paramedics from around the world, numbering 2,000, offered their services. Volunteers stayed in temples when they could not find hotel rooms.
It was a drama that mixed Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets with Mission Impossible. But after a rescue operation lasting several days, the boys showed signs of good spirits and healthy appetites, requesting khao pad krapow – basil chicken with rice – as well as chocolate spread on bread.
But their ordeal is not yet fully over. They will have to undergo health checks and counselling after spending more than two weeks in damp conditions amid poor air quality, subsisting on little more than water and hope.
As the rescue comes to a close, harder questions emerge. How to ensure the trapped children recover from the trauma? How to better police the dangerous cave? What guidelines can be introduced by Thailand’s government? Could this ordeal have been prevented?
The cave is if anything likely to become even more of a tourist site now, and measures will have to be taken to regulate it or close it off from the general public, notwithstanding the thousands of pumps that were brought in to partially drain its watery passageways.
All the volunteers must be hailed, and the boys themselves, for whom the rescue operation had to be staggered in part owing to concerns over their mental health.
Within a week, the children had to learn to scuba dive, and to scuba dive in conditions that even the most expert divers would balk at. Now let’s wait for the movie.