Thailand cave rescue: They survived!

The incredible cave rescue in Thailand from the Danish diver Claus Rasmussen’s point of view.

Claus Rasmussen (right) and two other divers celebrate the successfull rescue operation

In the North of Thailand, the locals believe the spirit of a legend princess, Jao Mae Nang Non, dwells in the mountains. She is said to have died in the very same cave where the 12 young football players and their trainer in June and July 2018 were trapped for 18 days. The boys and the trainer were more likely than not to suffer the same fate as the legend princess.

The words about the boys’ disappearing travelled quickly. The same day they got trapped Claus Rasmussen watched it on the news, while he was teaching cave diving. Together with the rest of the cave dive instructors in Thailand he offered his expertise to the military who was in charge of the rescue operation.

The first support group that included Claus Rasmussen’s boss came to the cave a few days after the boys went missing. The boss called him every day to inform him about the situation – and the news were not uplifting.

Just getting into the cave was a challenge. Half of the year it is virtually dry, and visitors can walk inside its dark hallways of rocks almost without getting their feet wet. But during the rainy season the rain can turn the cave into a flooded nightmare. It was difficult to see anything in the water and along with a very strong flow it became hard for the divers to avoid getting stuck in mud or flung against rock protrusions. Several occasions where divers feared for their lives led to the rescue operation almost being stopped. But the Thai Navy Seals insisted on keep trying.

Transporting air bottles
Nine days into the rescue operation Claus Rasmussen and the rest of the second support group arrived at a resort close to the cave, where they got ready to replace the first support group. The same day the divers had finally managed to find the boys. When that information hit the resort, a festive atmosphere raised:
“It was very unlikely that they would be alive, so we were very, very happy that they have been found and even were alive,” Claus Rasmussen tells.

The 45 years old diver has explored the world beneath the water surface for more than twenty years. He left Denmark for good 14 years ago to become a dive instructor and the last two years he has been teaching cave diving at Blue Label Diving on the island Phuket.

The boys might be found, but as the days went on no decision was made about how to rescue them. All kinds of ways to get them out were either very risky or impossible.

That meant Claus Rasmussen spent the first couple of days in the muddy outside area of the cave while he offered support to the Thai Navy Seals. A fence made of rope separated the many journalists from hundreds of volunteers that filled out the area. None of them knew exactly what was going to happen or which role they would play:
“We did not know what was going to happen yet, but one thing was sure – we had to do something, and everyone was very determined,” Claus Rasmussen says.

That something became transporting air bottles into the cave in case it was decided to save the boys by diving. For Claus Rasmussen and his team, it was also a way to get familiar with the undergrounds tunnels of the cave. But before going into the cave one thing was important to him: Praying at the shrine of Jao Mae Nang Non, asking for the spirit’s permission to enter her cave.

On the outside big pumps had been pumping water out of the cave for days. But when Claus Rasmussen went in, the water still reached his neck. Thai Navy Seals walked with air bottles to the rescue operation base, a chamber 700 meter inside the cave. At one point they had gathered 200 air bottles at the base. From here, Claus tied three air bottles together at a time, fastened them to his equipment with a carabiner and swam deeper into the cave to deliver the bottles in different chambers.

On the way out, Claus Rasmussen and a team mate met two Thais heading into the base with more air bottles. One of them was Saman Gunan, a former Thai Navy Seal. They stopped and talked for a moment before they continued.

Saman Gunan never returned. He was the only one who died during the rescue operation.

The divers’ demands
To dive was a risky way to save the football team, and before the divers even were willing to try, they had some demands.
One of them was that the boys should be sedated, so they not would panic during the rescue. A panic attack could in worst case led to the death of both a boy, his rescuer and the ones eventually trying to help them.

Another demand was that the boys should wear full face masks that make it possible to breath with both nose and mouth underwater.

“If we could not get the equipment, we would not do it. It would not to be safe for either the kids or us.”

But full-face masks are not designed to fit children, so while the divers transported air bottles they also worked on getting masks small enough.

Despite most of the world’s attention and offering of help, the divers’ expectations for the number of survivors were low:

“If everything went well, we expected to get 20% of the boys out alive”.

Claus Rasmussen (middle) adjuts elastics around air bottles inside the cave. The elastics help to hold the air bottles in place while diving.

Carrying the boys
15 days after the boys and their trainer got trapped in the cave, the rescue by diving began.
A chain of divers would bring the  football players out of what became known as chamber nine, 3,5 kilometers from the entrance of the cave. Claus Rasmussen and one of his team mates were located in chamber eight.

Four Thai Navy Seals kept the football team company in chamber nine while the rescue went on. Four English divers went into the chamber together with a doctor and took the boys out one at a time. Calmed by the medicine and with a full-face mask on, the boy dived through the passage from nine to chamber eight. The diving passage was difficult, and the English divers had little chance to find out if water went into the boy’s mask during the dive.

When they reached chamber eight, Claus Rasmussen and his team mate would be ready to bring the boy further on.

“When we waited for the boys to arrive at chamber eight, we did not know if they would actually survive the first diving passage. We were almost surprised every time one of them was alive, when they came out to us,” he says.

When the boy arrived, they checked if he started to mumble or move a lot. Then he had to get some of the medicine Claus Rasmussen and his team mate carried. They needed him to get as calm as possible through the next part of the rescue.

After the medicine, they took of the boy’s diving equipment and wrapped him on a stretcher where he would be safe through chamber eight.
Chamber eight was a passage of only 150 meters and it was not necessary to dive, but it took 20 minutes to get through. With the boy on the stretcher, one man carried in the front and another on the side.

First, they carried the stretcher on top of a sand hill and down into streaming water. The water led to a ditch of mud they had to pass. On the other side of the ditch the water reached all the way up to the men’s chests. Even though the boy was unable to answer because of the medicine, Claus Rasmussen occasionally held his hand to calm him down and said “khun dern tang klab ban” – you are on your way home.

When they reached a narrowing, the man on the side of the stretcher moved to the back to be able to get through. On the other side of the narrowing they walked in water to their knees and passed over a rock protrusion. Then they reached the last obstacle, a bigger protrusion rising out of the water. By crawling and lifting the stretcher they got to the end of chamber eight.
From here the boy had to dive once again. Claus Rasmussen and his team mate took him out of the stretcher and put his diving equipment back on. Then they returned to their starting point waiting for the next boy to come out.

Get out
The goal of the first day’s rescue was to bring four boys out. When Claus and his team mate were done carrying them through chamber eight they made their own way out of the cave. Only then they knew if the boys had made it:
“It was a massive shock for us to see that all four boys actually made it all the way out alive”.

Next day the operation resumed, and another four boys were saved. On average, the divers only slept three hours per night, so they discussed whether or not to take a resting day. The prospect of heavy rain led them to continue without.

On the third day all the boys and the trainer had escaped the cave. They might be out, but the rescue operation was not over yet.

The four Thai Navy Seals in chamber nine were the last ones to leave the cave. While most of the volunteers celebrated the successful operation on the outside, Claus Rasmussen and two team mates stayed at the rescue base inside the cave in case anything went wrong when the Thai Navy Seals made their way out.

Only a few minutes after the head of the last Thai Navy Seal appeared at the far end of the rescue base a warning was screamed from the other side of the chamber: The water was rising. One of the pumps outside the cave had broken down just moments before.

When they had entered the cave in the morning they could walk to the rescue base, but now they could watch the water rise in front of them. In less than 30 minutes the water rose one meter. The divers did not panic, but they had to hurry. They swam to get out and left parts of their equipment behind.

To Claus Rasmussen it appeared like the spirit princess was chasing them out of her cave:
“It was like Jao Mae Nang Non said ‘you got what you wanted, now get out!’”

Back to normal
When Claus Rasmussen tells the story to ScandAsia at his workplace on Phuket, it is a month since he returned from the rescue operation.

In 2002 Claus Rasmussen visited Thailand for the first time during a holiday. Two years later he left Denmark behind and moved to the Land of Smiles. Photo: Lærke Weensgaard

The sound of two new costumers filling out papers downstairs in the diving shop slips upstairs to the office. Claus Rasmussen has not been in the office for long – yesterday he returned from teaching a cave diving course outside Phuket.

“Blue Label Diving has become much more popular,” he tells and waves a hand towards a whiteboard filled with appointments.

In truth, it is probably himself who has grown popular. Before the interview, he went to a diving shop and immediately the staff started to find pictures of him on the internet.

They are far from the only ones who know he took part in the rescue. The police want to chit chat, he gets recognized by strangers in town and journalists are eager to speak with him.

“But it is not too bad with the journalists in the moment, only a couple each week.”

Everyone wants to talk about the rescue – and that can be stressful.

“I was lucky that I could pull away from everything. Straight after the rescue operation I packed my things and went out to teach a cave diving course for a week. So I came back to a normal everyday life. Or at least as normal as it can be.”

Downstairs, the new customers have finished filling out papers and are soon ready to go diving. The same goes for Claus Rasmussen. In an hour he will be off again to teach yet another cave diving course.

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