Largest Ever Cave Diving Rescue Guides Eight Boys to Safety
The largest ever cave diving rescue operation has managed to get another four of the 12 trapped Thai schoolboys to safety. On Sunday more than 90 divers - more than half of which have come from countries around the world - managed to get the first group through the extremely demanding five kilometres of partially flooded and at times very narrow passages.
Today a further four were carefully guided through the cave system as rescuers feared further heavy rainfall on Sunday could put the children at risk as water levels again started to rise.
Most of the divers are being used to ferry equipment through the cave. A team of 18 divers - 13 foreigners and five Thais - carried out the actual rescue dive. The boys were wearing full-face masks and were each tethered to a support diver carrying their air tank. Another support diver followed closely behind.
When possible the support divers hugged the boys close to them and swam them through the flooded passages. But for some stretches, the teams had to navigate passages less than 600mm by 750mm in single file.
The same team returned on Monday and said after the successful operation that conditions inside the cave system had not deteriorated despite heavy rainfall outside. There are now four boys and the coach remaining inside the cave and it is expected that the rescue team will dive again on Tuesday.
Ben Reymenants, a Belgian cave diver who operates a dive shop in Thailand, was part of the group that first found the boys on Monday, after more than a week of searching. He said he had to pull himself hand-over-hand through the muddy chambers and against a powerful current.
'You’re literally pulling yourself, hand-over-hand, in zero visibility,' Reymenants, 45, recalled in a telephone interview. 'You can’t read your depth gauge, you can’t read the time, so you’re basically flying blind in a direction you don’t know.'
Reymenants said he and other experienced cave divers initially thought finding the group would be impossible under such terrible conditions. He agreed to try a second dive after he realised the Thai navy divers were determined to keep searching.
More than 110 of the divers are Thai SEAL members, and they have set up a command centre in a dry area of the cave known as Chamber Three, where crews are based around the clock. It is about a mile from there to the boys, but it is the hardest mile. Most of it is underwater with few air pockets.
One American cave diver, an Air Force rescue specialist who is part of a team sent to help from Okinawa, Japan, said that the boys had to navigate underwater passageways as much as a quarter-mile long without air pockets above.
The cave complex, which has never been fully mapped, has many different formations, said the American, who could not be identified by name for security reasons.
It is not a single river running through the cave, he said, and not all of the waterways appear to be directly connected. Pumping water from spots near the cave entrance does not necessarily reduce the level in more distant parts of the network, such as where the boys and their coach are.
The terrain varies from one area to the next — from sandy bottom to deep mud to boulders the size of a house. In one place, waters converge to create occasional geysers. Currents can flow quickly, especially when it has been raining outside and the water level in the cave rises.
Some passages are excruciatingly narrow — as small as 600mm by 750mm, Reymenants said. 'Normally, I’d have just turned around,' he said, 'but then normally I don’t have 12 boys, and their entire lives, as an endpoint.'