Difficult Decision Looms on Rescuing Thai Boys From Cave
Should rescuers try to scuba dive with victims through flooded caves or wait months until waters recede?
By James Hookway in Bangkok and Wilawan Watcharasakwet and Jake Maxwell Watts at Tham Luang Cave, Thailand
Rescuers who found a dozen boys and their soccer coach alive in a flooded cave complex in northern Thailand now face an agonizing decision: Risk a daring mission to get them out through the flooded passageways, or keep them there until the monsoon season ends and they can walk to safety.
It is a pivotal moment in what is already a heart-stopping drama that’s captured much of the world’s attention.
With heavy rains forecast, Thai Navy SEALs are scrambling to teach the youngsters scuba diving techniques before the flooding inside the six-mile-long Tham Luang Cave worsens. None of the children know how to swim. Interior Minister Anupong Paojinda told reporters Tuesday that rising water levels will make it harder to keep the boys and their 25-year-old coach supplied with the food, water and medicine to recover from their 10 days and counting underground.
But guiding them through hundreds of yards of twisting and sometimes disorienting underwater passageways would be fraught with danger. “If something happens midway, it could be life-threatening,” said Gen. Anupong, a senior member of Thailand’s military junta who will be one of the core decision makers.
Cave-diving specialists agreed.
Bill Whitehouse with the British Cave Rescue Council, two members of which made first contact with the soccer team Monday night, said it would be very difficult and much depends on the geography of the cave.
The determining factor, however, will likely be the weather.
Ben Reymenants, a Belgian diving specialist who has been assisting the rescue effort, said that if rainstorms in the area worsen, the youths might be forced to remain in the few dry spots in the cave for the next three or four months until the monsoon season ends.
“It all depends on the rain,” he said. The rapid flow of water through the narrow and often jagged passages linking the larger caverns would render any extraction even more hazardous, he said.
In some areas, the passages were so tight that rescue divers had to take off some of their gear and push it in front of them through the narrow spaces.
The drama began June 23, when the coach of the Wild Boars, as the team is known, took the boys on an excursion after the team’s weekly training session. Ekkapol Chantawong often took the boys out, and they had visited the cave complex before. This time they aimed to explore further inside, with a plan to etch their names on innermost walls as a form of initiation rite.
In the afternoon, they were caught in one of the sudden flash floods that plague the area during the rainy season, cutting them off around a mile-and-a-half inside the complex until British rescue divers found them.
The breakthrough came after torrential rains eased over the weekend, allowing the divers and Thai Navy SEALs to penetrate further into the cave system, among Thailand’s largest. They spent much of their time setting up relay stations equipped with air tanks, food supplies and lighting equipment before discovering the boys and their coach safe and well, though very hungry and suffering from some muscle loss.
The deputy provincial governor in Chiang Rai, Passakorn Bunyalak, said Tuesday that the rescuers’ top priority is to drain as much water from caves as possible before severe storms strike. Lower water levels would make it easier for rescue divers to bring them out through the winding network of passageways.
But authorities are looking at other options, including drilling holes from the outside of the cave despite the thickness of the walls and the difficulty of pinpointing the precise location of the boys. Backhoes and drilling equipment have already been deployed to the area for that purpose.
Rescuers are also looking at moving the Wild Boars through a submerged tunnel to a larger, drier cavern in the cave complex to prepare for a longer stay.
The health risks from staying such a long time underground are considerable. Among other things there is a danger of a buildup of carbon dioxide in some of the more confined spaces. Authorities are now using chemicals to absorb some of the gas.
Medics are also starting the youths on easily digestible foods and shakes to gradually build up their strength. The Thai SEAL team also includes a psychologist who is helping the boys recover from the mental strain of being trapped underground for so long.
To that end, engineers Tuesday were laying a telephone line to where the boys are located so they can speak with their families outside.
A member from one of the international dive teams said electricians and engineers are laying cables and lighting along a route from the cave entrance to a forward base around a mile-and-a-quarter inside. He said they form part of a “daisy chain” of divers, who take turns to swim approximately 100 yards with supplies and equipment before passing it to the diver next in line.
The diver, who asked not the be identified, said the rescue team comprised divers from several countries, including Australia, Britain, China, and the U.S.
“It’s amazing how when you’ve got people together and nobody speaks each other’s language you can still make yourself understood,” he said.
Some of the caverns inside are as large as three stories high and as long as a soccer field, he said. The boys currently are in one of the smaller chambers in the complex, on a sandy ledge.
But with fresh rains looming and the boys’ families waiting outside, the decision facing Thailand’s leaders on whether to extract the boys or help them wait out the floods isn’t getting any easier.
Source: The Wall Street Journal