Australian journalist LIAM COCHRANE covered last year’s dramatic cave rescue of schoolboys in Thailand. Here, he reconstructs the gripping events that had the world on the edge of its seat, praying for a miracle to save a dozen soccer-mad boys and their coach from disaster.
The boys of the Wild Boars Academy Football Club were in high spirits as they trekked up the small rise to the entrance of the cave.
They sang songs and playfully flashed at each other the torches they had brought for what was intended to be an hour or so of exploring the cathedral-like chambers with their glistening stalagmites and stalactites.
One of them noticed a faded old sign on the cliff wall. In Thai and English, it read: ‘DANGER! FROM JULY–NOVEMBER THE CAVE IS FLOODED. NO ENTRY!’
That’s OK, they decided. It was late June. The dangerous period hadn’t yet begun.
Still laughing and joking, they made their way inside.
And so began a drama that for two agonising weeks last year would dominate headlines around the globe and grip the watching world in anxiety. Twelve boys and their soccer coach went into that cave, but would any of them come out alive?
The Thai schoolboy football team trapped in a cave. The story became a world-wide phenomenon
The caves had always been a place of mystery and mysticism.
Ask any local in that far-distant area of northern Thailand the secret of Doi Nang Non — the Mountain of the Sleeping Lady — and they will tell you the tale of a beautiful princess who fell in love with a commoner, a stable-boy.
Their love was forbidden, but the princess didn’t care and became pregnant. The couple ran away, seeking refuge in a cave. But when the stable-boy went to find food, he was captured by the soldiers and killed. The princess was so distraught, she stabbed herself.
According to the legend, her fallen body became the mountain, her blood the water that flows through the caves during the wet season.
The porous limestone of the mountain allows the frequent drenching monsoons to soak through, eroding underground fissures into cracks, pockets, ledges and caves and creating passages.
Inside is a dark and deep netherworld where black crickets burrow under rocks, entirely normal, save for the fact they have no eyes.
The caves are a natural playground for local children — places of daring adventure.
The mission to rescue the final four boys and their football coach trapped in a flooded cave seen here in a picture posted on Twitter by US billionaire Elon Musk
Which is why the Wild Boars came there on June 23 after Saturday morning football practice in their home town of Mae Sae nearby. They were led by their 25-year-old soccer coach Ekapol Chantawong, a quiet, fit, devout Buddhist who had previously been a monk.
He was in charge of the under-13s team, but his regular after-practice excursions to go cycling, swimming or exploring made him popular with players of all ages. The boys adored him, and called him Pee Ek, or Older Brother Ek.
He’d told them about how he’d been in the cave before, and they asked him to take them there.
After soccer training, they ate snacks from a local kiosk — grilled pork skewers with sticky rice, crisps and soft drinks — and then rode their bikes to the cave.
The entrance was huge, the size of a hangar, but its walls quickly funnelled in towards the first narrow passageway. The boys — most still in their red football tops and shorts — leaned their bikes against a handrail at the top of stairs cut into the slippery wet dirt, exchanged their football boots for slip-on sandals and continued.
They walked down the steps, still boisterous, shining their torches around the limestone walls as their eyes adjusted to the dark. They were excited, not scared.
The first 800 yards were an easy walk, until they came to a sign warning ‘Difficult’, which marked the start of a series of boulder collapses, choke-points and chambers. Further in they went, the air getting cooler with each step, to a semi-flooded tunnel that had to be waded through.
Jose Mourinho of Manchester United meets members of the Wild Boars football team from Thailand in October last year
The boys ventured on until they reached a T-junction in the cave and turned left. Water was pooled here and some took off their sandals. The route took them to a big chamber with a sandy bank, known as Pattaya Beach.
From there, they eventually reached a flooded passage but with enough headroom for them to swim through. ‘Do we want to go further?’ asked Coach Ek.
They were two and a half miles into the cave by now but the boys were keen to push on, knowing they would earn some serious bragging rights if they could walk right to the end — another four miles ahead — and scrawl their names on the back wall.
Movement: An ambulance leaves from the cordoned off rescue area by the cave , shortly before it was reported that boy number nine and ten had been extracted from the cave
As the oldest and tallest, 16-year-old Tee volunteered to head into the flooded tunnel and check the depth. He could touch the bottom, so the group waded into the cold water, the smaller boys riding on the backs of the taller ones. They pushed on, swimming, walking if they could, to another dry spot.
There, Coach Ek saw the path ahead was blocked by mud.
‘Should we go back now?’ he asked, and they agreed they should.
They swam back through the sump, passed through Pattaya Beach and had almost reached the T-junction when the boy at the front shouted: ‘There’s water!’
What had been a small pool just two hours earlier now filled the passage completely, blocking their way out.
To check just how stuck they were, Coach Ek tied a rope around his body, which the boys held onto, then, holding his breath, dived into the water. He discovered the tunnel was blocked by sand and stone; there was no way through. He gave two tugs on the rope as a signal and the boys heaved him back.
When he told them the way ahead was blocked, they looked at each other a little nervously before telling themselves to ‘get a grip, be cool, don’t be frightened’. Ek set them to work scooping out mud.
From the other side of the blockage, they suddenly heard whistles and the faint muffled sounds of shouting. They shouted back, but couldn’t tell if those on the other side could hear. They dug for a while longer, but it was no use. The water, sand and stones had sealed their exit shut, trapping them.
Back in town darkness was falling, along with heavy rain, and parents were beginning to get concerned that their sons had not returned.
In one home, an ice-cream cake with the number 16 iced on top was cooling inside the freezer, waiting to be taken out for the lad’s birthday party that evening.
Rescuers are seen walking towards the entrance of the cave complex during the rescue operation
Word went round that the boys had gone to the cave, and a handful of parents headed there. They ran into three rangers from the Department of National Parks, one of whom was crying. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she sobbed. ‘I couldn’t help them. The water trapped them.’
The rangers explained that they had seen the bicycles left at the entrance and were worried about flooding because it had started to rain heavily.
They went into the cave as far as the T-junction, but could go no further. They had found some discarded slip-on sandals along the way. They shouted and blew whistles, but heard no reply over the sound of rushing water.
The rangers tried to be reassuring: ‘Don’t worry — whenever anyone gets trapped in these caves, they always survive. There’s high land and water to drink.’ By now, word about the missing soccer team was spreading fast.
Rescued: A helicopter takes one of the boys rescued on Tuesday from the Tham Luang Cave near Mae Sai to hospital. Strapped to the stretcher, his head is held in a protective neck-brace and he is wearing sun-glasses shielding his eyes from the light
Emergency services were on the way and it was on the television news. At least one parent heard about the situation his son was in by turning on the TV and seeing pictures of the boys’ bicycles leaning in a row at the cave entrance.
The father of Titan — at 11, the youngest of the boys — raced to the mountain. He paused to place his palms together in prayer at a shrine to Princess Nang before surveying the scene — the cave mouth lit up by an industrial floodlight and the area swarming with police and soldiers. The search was escalating into a major incident and a race against time.
Inside the mountain, the boys were exhausted from digging. They walked back the way they’d come from the blocked T-junction to a chamber and lay down on the sandy slope.
They were hungry and thirsty. They had no water or food with them and had last eaten hours ago at the football pitch.
But they were resolute.
‘At that stage, we were not at all afraid,’ said Coach Ek. ‘We thought the water would go down by the next day. Before going to sleep, I asked everyone to pray to Lord Buddha.’ In a low monotone, the boys chanted a prayer before turning off their torches — all except one, which was jammed and wouldn’t turn off.
They went to sleep with its light reflecting off the calcite crystals on the roof, creating white sparkles that looked to the boys like stars in the night sky.
Outside, the rescue was being led by Navy SEALS from the Royal Thai Special Warfare Command. The country’s most fearsome warriors, they were supremely fit, highly trained and dedicated to their often-secret missions.
Dispatched on the orders of the King, they arrived before dawn on Monday morning — 36 hours or so since the boys had first gone into the cave — and went straight in, ready to dive if necessary.
But when they reached the T-junction, the conditions they faced were something completely new to them — a churning brown pond and zero visibility. Everything had to be done by touch.
The 11th boy to have been rescued was reportedly 11-year-old Chanin Wiboonrungruang (second left), whose nickname is Titan
Their standard scuba rigs were clumsy in the confined spaces, with the air tanks and hoses on their backs in danger of being torn off or becoming tangled. The torrent of water rushing through the cave could rip off their masks.
They were putting their lives at great risk but bravely they battled on, scraping and hacking underwater with shovels and by hand until they forced a way through into a big chamber. But the boys were nowhere to be seen.
The next restriction was even tougher, and, smashed by the oncoming water, they had no choice but to turn back. The current swept them back along the rocky passageways and spat them out at the T-junction.
Thousands of rescuers including Thai Navy SEALs and elite British divers had been working around the clock to come up with a plan to bring the exhausted and starved boys home safely
The problem was that the SEALS were experienced divers but none of them had the special expertise of cave divers.
Experts, however, were beginning to answer the call for help — men such as 63-year-old Englishman Vernon Unsworth.
He lived in the area and, with his Thai caving buddy, Lak, had the best working knowledge of the labyrinth under the Mountain of the Sleeping Lady of anyone. A call from the National Park had him grabbing his blue helmet and caving lamp and rushing to the cave.
He and Lak headed inside as far as the T-junction.
‘You could see the water getting higher and higher,’ he recalled. It wasn’t up to the roof yet, but his experience told him the situation was only going to get worse.
He tried putting down sandbags to stop the flow from a side tunnel but the torrent just pushed them away. He worked on, but to no avail. The junction stayed blocked.
Desperation was now seizing the parents.
A scream of anguish and desperation from Titan’s mum echoed off the rock walls: ‘My son, come out. I am waiting for you here,’ she pleaded.
Another mother cupped her hands around her mouth and yelled into the tunnel: ‘Please hurry up and come home, my son.’
Titan’s father went into the cave to help with the search. He was tough and fit but immediately the cold got to him and he found itdifficult to breathe.
Near to the T-junction, he and others began to dig, trying to drain water away and keep the tunnel open. Ahead, the water made a deafening sound as it flowed in from two directions and collided at the junction, every minute thickening the door of mud and rocks that sealed off the rescuers from Pattaya Beach, where the SEALS thought the trapped boys probably were.
Thailand erupts in celebrations as trapped football team is freed from cave and rescue chief praises successful mission
He dug until, exhausted, he had to stop. Sitting there in the mud, his hope sank. He was mentally preparing himself for the prospect that his son would die. In his mind, the best he could hope for was the closure of finding his corpse.
By their fourth day trapped underground, the boys had passed the point where hunger hurts. They were managing to drink fresh water dripping from the walls as they continued to search for other ways out. Coach Ek felt a responsibility to keep them calm.
Instead of talking about being stuck, he focused on the hope they’d be out soon. They had heard whistles and shouts on the first night, so that proved someone was trying to save them.
Each night, they would say a Thai Buddhist prayer together. It was one the boys all knew, equivalent to ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ for Christians. The low-voiced chanting and the familiar ritual were reassuring.
But the rain kept falling and the water rising. The chamber they were in had so far provided a sanctuary but for how much longer?
They decided they had to seek higher ground and set off even deeper into the cave complex.
After a while, they came to a section of dry tunnel that was noticeably warmer and made their bed there for the night.
But the next morning, the water was still rising, as if it was chasing them ever further inside the mountain. They walked on and came to a steep bank that went back more than 20 yards and would give them space if the water kept coming.
Importantly, clean water was dripping like a tap from two rounded white stalactites hanging down from the roof, giving the chamber its nickname — Mound of the Young Woman’s Breasts.
Settling into their new home, they found that the cave wall at the back was dirt, not rock. This gave them hope that maybe there was something behind it. A secret chamber? A way out?
They were led by their 25-year-old soccer coach Ekapol Chantawong before being trapped
‘We weren’t bored’, 14-year-old Biw said later. ‘We were too busy digging. We woke up at 6am every day because 16-year-old Tee’s watch had an alarm set for 6am and noon. Those that had strength would dig first, then the second shift would take over.
‘We had to try to get out. Otherwise when the rescuers came, they’d think we did nothing.’
Meanwhile, the operation to get them out was growing to unprecedented proportions.
Experts were flying in from Britain, the U.S., Australia and China and millions of people around the world were glued to their TV sets.
But even the world’s top cavers were helpless in the face of the floodwater, now rising 4in every hour. The SEALS continued to hack away at the underground obstructions but stirred up the mud so much that the divers could only monitor their wrist-mounted dive computers by pressing them right up against their masks.
It was tough, frustrating work fighting the water, and they were losing the battle.
Supplies poured in from around the world — air tanks, compressors, lights, helmets, rope.
So did people. Out of the blue, eight climbers arrived from the deep south of Thailand — men who every day swarmed up and down cliffs and caves on ropes to collect small nests built by swifts.
They sold them to the Chinese for bird’s nest soup, a delicacy claimed to have medicinal powers for anything from curing asthma to raising libido.
They trekked to the top of the mountain to look for shafts and fissures, then dropped down into them on ropes in the hope of finding a back route into the cave complex. It was dangerous work. They used no safety equipment, and if the rope had broken or a knot slipped, they might have fallen to their deaths.
Thousands of soldiers and volunteers were also on the hillside, to dig channels, dam streams and haul pipes up the mountain for drainage systems.
Everything and anything was being tried. A groundwater scientist argued that all the underground aquifers probably connected and got the go-ahead to drain water from a different cave in the hope of reducing the levels.
Yet still the water was winning.
Just before dawn on the fifth day, a huge downpour began and the water level inside the cave rose 6in in an hour. The rescuers who had started at the T-junction a few days earlier were now forced back further, away from the trapped boys.
This retreat was a serious blow to morale. Conditions were now so dangerous that the SEALS suspended all diving. With more rain falling, it was reckoned that the cave was about to flood all the way to the entrance. All those inside were evacuated as a matter of urgency.
Inside the mountain, the boys and their coach were still trying to find their own way out. As well as digging away at the back wall, they also mounted exploration missions through the partly flooded passageways.
But even with their torches, the geography inside the cave could be confusing. ‘The scenery changed,’ said Biw. ‘We’d swim and find three slopes, then the next time we went there were four.’
He was walking along a passage he’d explored the day before when suddenly there was a huge drop, straight down, with water below. It wasn’t there the previous day.
They had a meeting to talk about their options.
They could just stay there and hope someone found them in time. Or they could try to go further into the cave and hope to find another way out. But trying to wade through the next sump and push further into the cave was a gamble.
‘If we find an exit, we will survive,’ said Coach Ek. ‘But if we don’t that means we are trapped by two sets of obstructions.’
At that moment, they heard the sound of water flowing. Ek shone his torch down to the bottom of the bank and they saw that the water was rising more quickly than ever.
Saved! All 12 players, pictured from top left clockwise, Adul Sam-on, 14, Panumas Saengdee, 13, Sompong Jaiwong, 13, Ekkarat Wongsookchan, 14, Pipat Bodhi, 15, Peerapat Sompiangjai, 16, Pornchai Kamluang, 16, Prajak Sutham, 14, Chanin Wiboonrungrueng, 11, Mongkol Boonpiam, 14, Nattawut ‘Tle’ Takamsai, 14 and Duangpetch Promthep, 13
In less than an hour, the water rose 9ft and the sump they were considering wading through was sealed shut. The decision had been made for them. ‘It was clear that we couldn’t go anywhere. We’d just have to wait until the authorities found us.’
But they wouldn’t sit idle. They would keep digging.
Biw said: ‘We knew there was an orange farm behind the mountain and we hoped we might see it.’ He was right about the farm. What he didn’t realise was that there was at least a third of a mile of rock between them and the oranges.
But digging gave them something to do with their days. And it gave them hope. Those who felt strong enough would fill their stomachs with water to keep the hunger pangs at bay and head up the slope to scrape away.
Some of the holes went a long way in but they always hit hard rock eventually. The boys were not fazed, though; they kept at it, working in shifts, dreaming of that orange orchard outside.
Coach Ek, though, was starting to get seriously spooked. ‘The most worrying things were the water, the darkness and the hunger. The water kept rising all the time, the darkness limited our awareness and hunger could cause conflict with each other.’
A very dark thought entered his mind.
‘Imagine if all this led to eating your friends, eating your own people.’
He laughed at the paranoia that had seeped into the dank cave. It must never come to that. Help would come if they remained patient and stayed alive.
n Adapted by Tony Rennell from The Cave by Liam Cochrane, published by ABC Books at £15.99. Copyright © Liam Cochrane 2019. To buy a copy call 0844 571 0640 or go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books