Friday, Jan 18, 2019 | Last Update : 02:50 AM IST
A saga of despair, tragedy, hope and heroism unfolded that rivalled the events unfolding on the football fields of Russia.
Rescuers from around the world carried out a daring operation to free the 12 schoolboys and their football coach who were stranded in a torturous cave structure in Thailand for 18 days.
It was the season of football the world over. The season of excellence and perfection, of nations and flags, of dreams and fans, of people divided by teams and stars they support, united by love for the game of football. The game that brought the world together in supporting 32 different teams on its eve had a distraction greater than the cup; fancy the incredible odds of that.
Far away from Russia, the Wild Boars were practising a game with their coach in a small village in the Chiang Rai province of Thailand. The team of teenagers was not known even in the neighbouring village. It was the day one of the boys, Peerapat “Night” Sompiangjai, was planning to celebrate his 17 birthday. He would be soon be returning home with his friends, perhaps joined by Ekkapol “Ake” Chantawong, the assistant coach. But things turned out very differently. A saga of despair, tragedy, hope and heroism unfolded that rivalled the events unfolding on the football fields of Russia.
On June 23, as Belgium beat Tunisia 5-2 and South Korea lost 2-3 to Mexico, team Wild Boars decided a little extra fun was on. They trekked to the familiar Tham Luang cave and 12 boys and their coach went inside. They carried no food or water and some left their shoes outside. After all, they would be back in an hour, max.
They would come back after two weeks; with the entire world backing them. Nations came together and people of every faith prayed, and hoped, as divers and doctors, rescue workers and volunteers, air force pilots, Navy seals and journalists from the world over rushed to the place that would soon get greater media attention.
Though popular as an adventure point, the cave is dangerous and several people have lost their way, and some, their lives. The danger is more during the rainy season and June is not a month when travellers are recommended to enter. The floods can touch over 16 feet and submerge everything within.
Trapped in ‘pataya beach’
That is what happened to the Team Wild Boars. What they did from then on made them heroes for all of us. They reached a dry point funnily called Pattaya beach and camped at a spot a few metres away, and above. Their coach, who could easily have been blaming himself for the recklessness, was a monk in a previous life, and taught them meditation and brought out the best in the team. Outside, the families realised what had happened and raised the alarm. For a day, local search and rescue teams tried but were unable to enter. That is when the Thai Navy Seals were brought in. Early accounts reported that a flash flood might have occurred and the water rushed in at too rapid a pace for anyone to react. The waters were moving treacherously, dangerous and muddy even for the world’s best Navy Seals or divers. The boys were over four km inside from the cave mouth, physically safe, emotionally wrecked, a km or so below the earth, and only some drinking water trickling through, some fresh air and their inner resolve.
Rescue ops begin
Outside, the first full-blown rescue operation unfolded rapidly. The elite Thai Navy Seals, national police and local rescue teams worked fast. One boy from the team who had skipped the trip into the cave suggested that they might be around the Pattaya beach point. Prayers began outside, first the families, then the schools and soon, the whole of Thailand. The story spread in the media, and soon the whole world joined in, with prayers and offers of support. America sent in air force rescue specialists, cave divers arrived from Australia, Belgium, Canada, Scandinavia and other countries. One such, a British diving team, which would etch its name in history, landed in Thailand on the sixth day.
On July 1, a week after the ordeal began John Volanthen, leader of the British diving team, and his mate Rick Stanton, found the boys. Volanthen said he smelt them, he found them, flashed his torch light and asked for a count. His words could be written alongside Armstrong’s “Small-step for man, giant-leap for mankind”: “How many of you? 13! Brilliant”.
The duo stayed with the boys, giving them hope and boosted their morale. They brought back letters, because mobiles would not work. But the first video of spotting the boys hit the social media and the world celebrated. The challenge of bringing the boys back — several of them could not swim — remained. There was a deadline. July 10 marks the worst torrential rains and the complete closure of the caves. But the divers had created a safe chamber as base to operate.
Meanwhile, a military doctor and some Navy seals reached them, to stay with them till the end. In Mae Sai between 200 and 300 local and foreign journalists were camped outside the cave’s mouth, their reports creating heroes. One such was Dr Richard Harris, an Aussie on vacation in Thailand. He cut short his holiday and rushed to offer aid. He not only dived and went into the cave but spent the time with the boys. As he helped with the mission to save the boys when he finally emerged triumphant, it was to learn that his own father had passed away back home.
Final rescue plan
The plan was made to bring out the team four km inside the cave, of which nearly 1,500 metres was under water. Divers practised with the boys outside the cave to prepare for the rescue. Time was running short. Sadly, 38-year-old Saman Gunan, a volunteer who had rushed to help in the rescue, a former Navy Seal diver, died. He was running to deliver oxygen tanks for the boys inside when he lost consciousness. It brought back the spectre of death on the mission for everyone. Narongsak Osotthana-korn, head of rescue operations, announced that D-day had arrived. “There is no other day that we are more ready than today.”
A final super-human, super-hero rescue effort was launched which involved over 100 Thai and foreign divers.
As per reports, “Rescuers made their way for hours through pitch dark waters in bone-chilling cold condition, feeling their way with guide ropes.” Each boy was given a full-face air mask to ensure they could breathe. The government said boys and coach were given anti-anxiety medication, maybe they were sedated and only semi-conscious. Once they reached the base chamber, they were brought back on pulleys designed for them.
Ivan Karadzic, a seasoned diver, confessed to the media that the experience was “extremely stressful”.
Stationed midway inside the cave, responsible for replacing air tanks and guiding rescue divers, he said he was nervous when the first boy emerged from darkness. “I didn’t know if it was a casualty or a kid,” Karadzic said. “But when I saw that he was alive and breathing it felt very good.”
The whole world celebrated as the Wild Boars were rescued and rushed to hospital. On Facebook, the Thai Navy Seals posted: “We are not sure if this is a miracle, science, or what.”
In Chiang Rai, jubilant crowds lined both sides of the streets leading up to the hospital, cheering the ambulances. Car horns blared incessantly in celebration and strangers hugged each other in joy.
As we read this account, Hollywood is sourcing the story for a movie. It was a global operation, in which as per a report from The New York Times, over 10,000 people participated, including 2,000 soldiers, 200 divers and representatives from 100 government agencies.
The world has found heroes, unlikely as could be, away from Russia in a small village football team. It found heroes in divers from across the world, and volunteers, rushing to help. We were one and the divisions of nationalities, race, and continents were behind us in this saga. Much before the world got its football champion — France — we had already found ours — the Wild Boars, the football team of all humanity.
(The writer is author of the bestselling MAN Asian Literary prize longlisted novel, Autobiography of a Mad Nation, and the non-fiction The Spiritual Supermarket)