Dubai: Canadian diver Erik Brown had the undivided attention of his audience at the fifth Middle East Dive and Fish Expo exhibition in Dubai this week as he spoke about the sensational rescue of 12 boys and their coach who were stuck in the Tham Luang Cave complex in Northern Thailand following flash floods in 2018.
“It is not a dive that you would ever do considering the consequences we were faced with. There was zero visibility and increasing water level and a complex network of caves. No one would want to dive in that situation. Time was crucial as the boys were already untraceable for nine days. We knew that if we decided not to go, chances of the boys coming out alive would be bleak. It was almost a life or death kind of situation and we had to break almost every diving rule we had learned in that situation,” said the 36-year-old, who was part of a team of 13 international divers called upon by the Thai government.
From chilling at a beach in Thailand when he was contacted by the Thai Navy Seals, Brown went on to spend nearly 63 hours in the cavernous corridor which was christened Chamber 3 in the long network of caves.
The story he had to tell was one of exemplary team work, courage, cooperation and resilience of the world diving community which came together for the rescue mission. The effort, which lasted 18 days and claimed the lives of two Thai navy seals – Saman Kunan, rescue diver who was asphyxiated during one of the dives and Beirut Pakbara who succumbed to a blood infection he contracted from the murky waters – is one of the most well documented tales of bravery and courage and the subject of two documentaries and a film.
In what seemed to be an insurmountable quest to rescue the marooned boys and their coach, the one thing that really worked was the manner in which teams worked in clockwork precision, Brown said.
“Meticulous planning, good decision making, teamwork, courage, kindness and humanity were key qualities that helped to make the mission successful. We broke into teams: One team was responsible for putting the line inside the cave that would help divers find their way in and out of the cave network. It took us almost eight days to find the kids but jubilation quickly gave way to the realisation that their rescue would be extremely dangerous,” Brown said.
What few people around the world actually know is that the marooned boys had to be sedated to be put into make-shift portable hampers across sticks to be transported with divers through the labyrinthine complex.
“The children and their coach did not know swimming. So they had to be sedated before being brought out of the cave, and we had a doctor diver as part of the rescue group. He administered drugs to keep the children unconscious until they were brought out of the 3km cave. Bringing out each kid took about three to four hours,” Brown said.
At one point, oxygen levels dropped and there was a threat of the children dying of hypoxia. The chambers were pumped with oxygen. “I was stationed at one of the chambers and had to change oxygen tanks as the children were brought from one cave chamber to another. The kids had to be completely packed with their hands tied and full face masks,, like those worn by firefighters,” Brown recalled.
The entire mission took a big mental, physical and emotional toll on the team members, he added.
Tham Luang cave rescue of 2018
Dubbed as the most daring and impossible cave rescues, the effort involved the rescue of 12 unior football team players who were trapped inside the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai Province, Thailand, along with their 25-year-old assistant coach. They had entered the cave on June 23 after football practice. Shortly afterwards, heavy rains flooded the cave, blocking their way out.
The rescue effort involved over 10,000 people, including more than 100 divers, scores of rescue workers, representatives from about 100 governmental agencies, 900 police officers and 2,000 soldiers; it required 10 police helicopters, seven ambulances, more than 700 diving cylinders and the pumping of more than a billion litres of water from the caves.