All options to rescue the boys trapped in a Thai cave are fraught with danger. Etan Smallman reports
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It is difficult to imagine the elation that the 12 boys and their football coach must have felt when they were found trapped in a cave in northern Thailand after nine days. But that moment on Monday was far from the end of their ordeal.
One of the world’s leading cave rescue experts told i that barring an emergency that demands their immediate evacuation – at extreme risk – the group will be stuck up to 1km below the surface for at least another week, and perhaps several months, as rescuers struggle to find a safe method to retrieve them.
Their situation could hardly be more perilous. The boys, aged between 11 and 16, and their 25-year-old coach are up to 4km from the main entrance of the Tham Luang complex and can escape only by diving – at depths of up to 30m.
The dangers were underlined on Friday when Saman Gunan, a Thai former navy diver, died while delivering air tanks to the group.
Rescuers are concerned about oxygen levels, which are being depleted by the large number of people working on the operation. It is understood that none of the boys can swim. Some parts of the caves are so constricted that the boys may need to have scuba air tanks mounted on their sides.
Narongsak Osottanakorn, governor of Chiang Rai province, said rescuers made clear that the children may not be in a healthy enough condition for rescuers to even contemplate moving them at this stage. A doctor and nurse have been sent in.
The water will be muddy, with zero visibility. Although more than 130 million litres of water have been pumped out, monsoon rains are expected this weekend.
Anmar Mirza, co-ordinator of the US National Cave Rescue Commission, described the situation as “incredibly unusual”. Almost all rescue options are fraught with danger.
The ideal solution would be if the team can locate holes or “chimneys” in the rock to access the group – or if enough water can be pumped out to allow the boys to wade out. Another is to have them wait for up to four months until the end of the rainy season.
But Robert Laird, co-founder of International Underwater Cave Rescue and Recovery, told i that would be his last resort. “I think that would be way too stressful. These are young boys who might be physically strong but, mentally, I’m not sure that they’d be able to withstand that type of pressure.”
Mr Mirza also has fears about this approach. “If there’s a medical issue that’s unforeseen, they cannot be given any treatment other than what the doctors who are with them have. Another risk is potential for further flooding to inundate the entire area they’re in.”
Alternatively, rescuers could look at drilling a hole into the cave. “The drilling itself is straightforward,” said Mr Mirza. “Finding the target is the hard part. That could take weeks or even a couple of months. The highaccuracy surveys that would be necessary to ensure that they’re hitting the correct target are very time consuming.”
Even once the precise location for the hole is detected, the heavy equipment needed to bore down would require roads to be built to accommodate the lorries.
The drilling process could also trigger rockfalls, though Mr Mirza said that is “not one of the higher risks”. Mr Laird, who has never come across a case as complicated as this in his 20-year career, warned that the space where the group is trapped “is so small that drilling a hole large enough for them to get out could be almost impossible”.
The most likely course of action appears then to be training the boys to scuba dive out. Mr Mirza emphasises that their plight would be a distressing one even for the most hardened diver. “Even for the highly experienced divers that are supplying the kids, each dive itself is risky. The more dives that they have to make, the bigger the risk.”
Then there is the task of helping traumatised children who may be in poor physical health to learn to scuba from scratch.
“It’s not easy at all,” said Mr Mirza. “But it gives the kids something concrete to do that will help keep the morale up, because they are doing something that potentially can help save their lives. It gives them a sense of control, which can help with their psychological condition.”
He believes the training process could take “anywhere from tens of hours to hundreds of hours”. “But if they are in immediate danger, then it may be the only option.”
Mr Laird is more optimistic, proposing that they could be out within 72 hours of the operation being triggered, with each boy given just an hour of training.
“If they can devise a process where there’s a lead diver that one boy would hold on to and have air supplied to him by the tank that the lead diver is wearing. Then have a follow-up diver that is right behind him who could hold on to his legs and give him reassurance that he’s there and everything’s fine.”
“It’s possible that there will be absolutely no communication system during that process,” he warns, and the biggest danger is that the children begin to lose their nerve. “Underwater panic almost guarantees you’re going to drown.”
Dr Mike Drayton, consultant clinical psychologist and associate of the Cabinet Office Emergency Planning College, said: “After the initial elation of a successful rescue, the kids face the risk of developing a severe post-trauma psychological reaction – anxiety, panic and claustrophobia.”
He recommended three steps to minimise the risks of mental harm. Rescuers should make sure to provide “honest and accurate” information about the operation. “Second, any child in this situation will want one thing – their mum,” he added, saying efforts to install phone lines in the cave will be crucial.
“Third, even a hint of normality will help support a sense of hope, so it would help a lot if the rescuers could take some familiar objects from the children’s home.”
Shortly before the group was discovered, local authorities had organised a ceremony where a boiled pig’s head and beer were presented to angry ghosts thought to occupy the cave and to have been responsible for this event.
More recently, their classmates have gathered at the cave’s entrance singing: “Believe in God. Only belief can move a mountain.”