Thursday, June 25, 2020 is the second anniversary of the beginning of one of this past decade’s most absorbing sagas: THE DISAPPEARANCE AND RESCUE OF THE BOYS IN THE CAVE IN NORTH THAILAND.
The event simply could not have been scripted more dramatically. A school’s football team was lost in a haunted cave. No fictional narrative was ever more perfect. Beginning with mystery, “Where are the boys?” Quickly turning into suspense, “Why aren’t they rescued?” Then, “Are they alive or dead?” Then, “They can’t have survived this long!” But after NINE days, “They are all alive … but trapped!”
That is when the saga transformed. Nothing, no effort, expense, or expertise would be spared to try to retrieve the boys. Volunteers appeared from foreign countries. Thai Navy divers were dispatched along with entire governmental units. The rescue seemed impossible as the flooding increased and the dangerous, narrow, twisting, egress was explored. The world held its breath as front page reports told the ongoing story on every continent, and then came DISASTER! The world gasped as one of the Thai Navy seals – the country’s most accomplished underwater swimmers – died in the cave.
Now knowing what they were up against, the rescue was judged to have two impossibilities, getting them all out alive, and giving up the attempt.
Nature turned still more threatening. Torrential rain began again, and the oxygen in the cave was running low, far lower than we were told at the time.
A cold-blooded plan was formulated. They would lose as few of the boys as possible, and save those they could, one at a time. They would sedate the boys, wrap them in a cocoon, and slide them through the tiny, flooded, twisting, vertical canal to a first aid zone half-way out, where they would be revived for the rest of the trip to the surface. It would take three days. One by one they were brought out, carried to helicopters, and flown to a hospital.
Every … last … one … of … them.
Now, on this anniversary, we can repeat with confidence that the event really did expose Thai character. As someone commented about the Thai response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Thai people will cooperate wholeheartedly for a good outcome when they want to. What we saw in 2018 was a score of agencies laying aside their protective regulations and boundary issues to get pumps, people, and policies working together. Tents came, food was delivered, priests chanted, drinking water, porta-potties, public address systems, transportation – these things were brought. Then came official response, almost on time, but in abundance. According to Wikipedia, “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; and it required ten police helicopters, seven ambulances, more than 700 diving cylinders, and the pumping of more than a billion litres of water from the caves.”
As the days passed, other aspects of Thai character came forth. It is predictable that a scapegoat must be identified to bear any shame. A dozen boys lost in a cave would be unforgiveable. When a good outcome was still in doubt, the story began to grow that the football coach who took the team into the cave to toughen them up was to blame. That outrage hardly had a chance to spread when the boys’ families rose in the coach’s defense. Afterward it was learned that the coach was the one responsible for getting the boys through the 9 days they were on a sandy ledge, in absolute darkness, without food, with only drinking water collected from condensation on the cave walls. Thanks to him the boys practiced meditation to dampen their panic and deepen their patience as they starved.
A more subtle but no less important aspect of Thai behavior is praise – the way it flows upward and is rewarded. When successes became obvious, credit began to be collected. The Prime Minister flew in to make suggestions and issue commands. He posed for pictures and flew away again. Word came that royalty had been helpful and their expressed good wishes were taken as effective in getting things done. They also hosted a massive appreciation dinner at the end of the effort.
Then the boys were given a short rest before being sent on a tour around the world. Movie rights were sold, and a book came out in record time. The cave and a museum dedicated to the rescue became a must-do stop for tour groups. Commercial benefits are always looked for, too.
The picture above is of Pramote and me, along with nephew Travis, my Brother Dan and his wife Rita in front of the Tham Luang Cave before it was reopened a few months ago, just before all national parks were closed due to the epidemic. Three previous blog-essays discussed aspects of the rescue saga in more detail. Here are links:
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.