|The Elephant Story and Sara Story Design teams recently returned to Bangkok from their Bhutan and Luang Prabang, Laos journeys to find much of Thailand focused on the Wild Boar soccer team that had gone missing in the Tham Luang cave in Mae Sai, Thailand. Mae Sai, located in The Golden Triangle, is a very special place to some of us going back fifty years. During that time, it became known as the opium smuggling hub for much of the world. The Elephant Story is a frequent visitor to the border town where many different ethnic hill tribes bring their vintage clothing and fabrics to sell.
Tragedy struck when the Wild Boar soccer team and their coach entered the Tham Luang cave on June 23 to build team spirit following a soccer practice. Although there was a sign at the entrance indicating the cave should not be entered from July to November, the monsoon rains came early causing heavy flooding and thereby trapping the Wild Boars in an unknown location in the cave. Coach Ekapol had previously explored the cave but flooding quickly filled the cave and forced them to seek an area elevated above the water three miles from the entrance.
The best description of the outpouring of help and compassion from many locations around the world is best demonstrated by the sketch "Helping Hands in Thailand" by AJ Dungo. It portrays the hands of many different ethnicities. Moreover, the cross section of the cave highlights the narrow passageways that would barely accommodate an adult diver swimming through a flooded section.
The cave was explored by French divers in the 1980's but never thoroughly mapped. The cave had been more recently mapped and explored by a British resident of Thailand, Vern Unsworth, shown below. He presented the concept of seeking assistance from British cave divers. He disagreed with Elon Musk, of Tesla fame, who believed one of his miniature submarines could make its way through the narrow passageways and retrieve the team. Musk subsequently insulted Unsworth prompting a freefall in the Tesla share price and an apology from Musk.
A team of British cave divers quickly made its way to Mae Sai to attempt a rescue of the twelve players ranging in age from 11 to 16 and the 25-year-old coach.
On July 2, two British divers, who squeezed through the flooded twist and turns of Tham Luang's crevices, found the team. For ten days, the Wild Boar team had spent their time without food, drinking water dripping from stalactites. Coach Ekapol who was ordained as a Buddhist monk taught the boys to meditate to help pass the time and take their minds off food which they had gone without for ten days. Further, they dug with their hands and rocks in attempt to create a tunnel exit.
When the divers popped up in front of the team, one of the boys, Adul Sam-on, was surprised to hear them speaking English. As Adul, shown in the right background, is a Wa ethnic migrant from Myanmar, he speaks English. Therefore, he had already told the British they had not eaten in ten days, while his Thai teammates kept repeating eat....eat....eat in Thai.
The inherent danger of a planned evacuation became crystal clear as 38-year old retired Thai Navy Seal, Saman Gunan, volunteered for the rescue mission and died during his return from the 6-hour round trip in the cave. Four Thai Navy Seals stayed with the team their last seven days.
Massive pumping operations began to remove as much flood water as rapidly as possible in advance of additional monsoon rains. Further, various evacuation schemes were being considered for the boys, some of whom could not swim much less have the stamina to dive when required.
Some ten thousand people participated in the rescue effort and countless others offered Buddhist spiritual support and blessings as the Thai scouts shown below are doing.
The US Navy seals introduced emergency rescue stretchers whereby the boys could be given anti-anxiety medication, strapped in with a full-face breathing device and then guided by a forward diver while followed by a second diver.
A network of guide ropes was installed and secured outside of the cave entrance. The evacuation began on July 8 and continued for the next three days until all 13 team members had been safely extracted.
The team members were individually transported by ambulance to an isolation ward in a provincial capital hospital. There they were monitored until July 19 for infection and any psychological damage from their ordeal. As can be seen below, they appear to be no worse for the wear.
There is no shortage of heroes in this story. Some 10,000 people participated in this rescue mission. An international team of ninety divers were assembled from around the world composed of fifty foreign participants and forty Thai Navy Seals.
A massive mural was painted of which a portion is shown below. Former Thai Navy Seal Saman is featured in the center. Governor Narongsak of Chiang Rai province in the ball cap below was an inspirational leader and government spokesperson to the Thai media. Unsworth and the British cave divers are prominently evident as well. Interestingly, the humility of the rescue team is unprecedented in today's world with no one raising their hand as to their role in the successful rescue.
The body of Saman was escorted to his former Thai Navy Seal base of Sattahip under the sponsorship of King Maha Vajiralongkorn for a ceremony befitting his bravery. The King played a prominent role in focusing the attention of the country on this impossible task with the successful recovery representing a miracle by all accounts.
The ongoing commitment of the community was evidenced by 4,000 volunteers to remove the remaining debris and restore the park outside the Tham Luang cave to its original environmental condition.
Coach Ekapol and the team expressed great remorse for the loss of Khun Saman's life and the students pledged to serve as Buddhist monks for a period to build merit for Khun Saman.
On July 25th, Coach Ekapol and 11 boys chanted an ordination prayer to seek permission from the monks to enter the monkhood for nine days. The twelfth team member, Adul Sam-on is a Christian. Coach Ekapol, who served as a Buddhist monk for some eight years, will rejoin the monkhood for one month to further his studies of Dharma (Buddha's teachings). In addition to honoring the memory of Lt. Commander Saman, the Chiang Rai Buddhism office chief said, "The ordination was also their way of thanking all of the rescuers from Thailand and other countries." The wife of the late Lt. Commander Saman joined the ceremony to provide her own personal closure.
Clearly, this story is a feel-good, miracle account driven by compassion. Moreover, in today's world that seems to be totally tribal with migrants shunned, the volunteer participation by different ethnicities and countries could cause one to believe that we may live in a common universe after all. However, the key to that becoming a fact is dependent upon all of us to demonstrate a bit of compassion every now and then. Moreover, it would be appropriate for our leaders to follow that example or, perhaps, they should not be our leaders.