John Volanthen could hardly believe what he was seeing. Cloaked by the thick, jagged darkness of the cave walls, the 51-year-old diver was sure he’d just caught a flicker of light in front of him.
Turning on his own light on his small recording device, he waded out of the deep pool of dank water beneath him and gasped.
Twelve small and scared pairs of eyes stared back at him, dirt and dust smudged on their cheeks and fear etched into their faces. They were still wearing their bright red football kits from the day they went missing. The light was from one of the boys’ torches, which they had taken with them in their exploring.
‘How many of you are there?’ John asked the group.
‘Thirteen,’ came the voice of the Wild Boar’s assistant coach, Ekkaphon Kanthawong, from the back of the enclave.
Somehow, miraculously, despite being trapped in the cave for nine days, all of them had survived.
John turned to his fellow diver, Richard Stanton, stunned. However, finding the boys was only just the beginning. Now, the pair had to work out a plan on how to get them all out alive.
The amazing discovery and rescue of a Thai youth football team, who had been trapped inside the Tham Luang cave for a total of 17 days in 2018, is a story somehow stranger than fiction.
Now, the labyrinthine twists and turns in this tremendous tale have been turned into an Amazon Prime Video feature-length drama called Thirteen Lives, with A-listers Viggo Mortensen and Colin Farrell taking the lead roles.
The team’s trip to the Tham Luang cave on that fateful day four years ago was meant to be a treat for the boys, to celebrate the 17th birthday of teammate Peerpat ‘Night’ Sompiangjai.
The kids knew the various nooks and crannies of the cave well – it was their unofficial haunt, where they would introduce new members to their team by etching their names on the cave walls – and the excursion was intended to be a brief one.
Their plan had been to go clambering inside for an hour before heading back to Night’s house in the nearby village in the Mae Sai district. His mother had a pile of presents and a Spongebob Squarepants cake waiting for him at home.
But Night didn’t come home. The team, accompanied by their 25-year-old assistant coach, were caught in a flash flood after rain started pouring down, thick and fast. The monsoon season had arrived uncharacteristically early, and the intricate cave system was quick to fill with water.
Stuck sheltering on an elevated shelf four kilometres into the tangled bowels of the cave, escaping simply was not an option. Swallowed up by the suffocating darkness, they had no choice other than to sit and wait in the hope of help coming to get them out.
Outside the cave, with no sign of their children and night quickly approaching, parents started to panic – particularly as it was common knowledge that the cave flooded in bad weather: Tham Luang cave usually shuts to visitors during the monsoon season.
A frantic dash to the area confirmed their worst fears: seeing bikes and bags belonging to their team parked outside Tham Luang, they knew their sons were stuck.
‘I started to cry,’ one parent said in a 2019 interview. ‘We all started to cry. We were scared.’
With the parents of the trapped boys raising the alarm, things moved quickly: the Thai Navy Seals, an elite force, arrived, alongside the national police.
Volunteers also offered their help, with food stalls on site to ensure the people devoting their efforts to save the boys were fed and watered. The families of the trapped were now based at the bottom of the cave, praying that their sons could be returned safely.
Despite the rapid pace during the early days of the operation, hopes of finding the boys alive, if at all, were slim. As experienced as the Thai Navy were in water, they were not particularly skilled at cave diving – especially in an environment as enclosed, dark and unforgiving as Tham Luang.
The ongoing stormy conditions and heavy rainfall also worsened the matter, seeing the water level continuing to rise inside the cave and rendering some chambers impossible to explore.
At first, efforts were focused on pumping out the water, with Iowa-based groundwater storage expert Thanet Natisri volunteering his services. He was already in Bangkok at the time, working on another project for the Thai government, when the country’s military requested his assistance.
‘When I arrived, I realised how serious it was,’ he has recalled since. ‘It was really complicated, an impossible job.’
Given access to around 270 army soldiers, 150 volunteers and roughly 40 local villagers, Thanet and his team were working as many as 20 hours a day on a three-pronged plan to drain the water away from the cave.
‘First, we had to get the water out of the cave,’ Thanet explained to one American news outlet. ‘Second, we had to drain the groundwater under the cave to make more room for the water to go. Then, we had to survey the mountains to find where the water was seeping into the cave.’
Thanet’s tireless work saw his team pump over 56 million gallons of water out of Thaum Luang throughout the rescue mission.
However, this came at a great cost to local farmers, who mournfully gave permission for their rice paddies to become waterlogged – effectively ruining their crop and much of their income – if it would help save the boys.
It was British caver Vern Unsworth, who lives in Chiang Rai and had previously mapped the inner workings of the cave, who encouraged authorities to get in contact with the British Cave Rescue Council. He knew they would be able to provide divers skilled enough to navigate the complex layout.
Back in the UK, Richard Stanton and John Volanthen responded to the call to arms.
Despite their expertise, cave diving was by no means their full-time job: it was more of a hobby that they finessed for fun. Richard made a living as a firefighter and was essentially self-taught after watching the 1979 documentary, The Underground Eiger, as a teenager. John, meanwhile, worked as an IT consultant.
A week in, the rescue efforts had prompted international media attention, with volunteers and officials from across the world taking to Thailand to offer their assistance.
Meanwhile, classmates of the boys held group prayers and posted messages of hope to those in the cave on their school notice board. Other volunteers donated food and money to the family of the missing team.
It meant that John and Richard had to work under a flashbulb-bright glare of scrutiny from the world, particularly following their astonishing efforts at finding the children nine days after they had last been seen alive.
Richard, who is ever a realist, admits was stunned when he finally stumbled across the team.
‘While there was joy, and relief, at finding the boys alive, we honestly didn’t expect them to be,’ he recalls at the press conference for the Thirteen Lives film, where he served as a consultant. ‘It was incredibly difficult to even penetrate the cave. We couldn’t see, we were fighting away against the current.’
Their will to survive was astonishing to even the most hardened adventurer, with the youngsters forced to dig further into the cave to try and keep themselves warm and dry.
While they were clearly very hungry, the team had managed to keep themselves hydrated from the advice of their assistant coach, who told them to drink the water from the cave’s stalactites instead of the dirty water below. Having previously trained as a monk, Ekkaphon Kanthawong also taught the boys to meditate, to stave off feelings of hunger and keep them calm.
Now, knowing they had the fate of these 13 lives resting on their shoulders, both Richard and John had the pressure of working with officials in a bid to try and get them out.
‘I’m a very focused person,’ Richard explains. ‘It was a moral obligation at this point. We were the people who were the experts in cave diving rescue. It was on us to do what we can.
‘I had to blinker out all emotion and scrutiny from everyone else to figure out how we were going to get them out.’
With the conditions considered extreme to even some of the most experienced cave divers in the world, there was not much hope that children – some who couldn’t even swim – would be able to get through a 4km dive that takes around three to five hours.
Plans were hashed out to see which methods were feasible in getting the boys free. At first, teaching them how to dive through the cave seemed possible, but unlikely, particularly considering the length and the difficulty of the dive.
Relaying food and supplies to the boys until the water receded, or had been pumped out, was also suggested – but quickly mooted: oxygen levels in the cave were quickly dropping to as low as 15%, far below the usual 21% needed for the human body to function adequately. It could also take months for the cave to become traversable again – and more rain was expected during the monsoon season.
Billionaire blowhard Elon Musk offered to ‘save the day’ by sending in a submarine; it was an idea that was dismissed as naïve and unworkable.
It was Richard who finally came up with the most feasible – but still incredibly risky – plan. He has been texting another diving friend, Australian-native Richard ‘Harry’ Harris, about coming over to help with the rescue mission.
Harry was a trained anaesthetist, so Richard proposed an idea which seemed implausible, even to his own ears: his friend could sedate the team and they could be carried out by divers.
‘My immediate response was: “Absolutely not!”’ Harry recalled in a 2018 interview. ‘I can’t think of a more certain way to sentence those kids to death than give them an anaesthetic and then try and bring them out under water 2.5 kilometres.’
However, he knew he could be able to help with his cave diving experience, and flew over to Thailand shortly after, acquiring authority to practise medicine overseas. By this time, Navy Seals and cave divers, who had established a route to the boys, were relaying food, medicine, torches and oxygen, as well as allowing letters to be passed on between them and loved ones.
Some of the letters were shared to the media by the Navy during the rescue efforts, with Night – the boy who was celebrating his birthday – telling his parents and his sister not to worry about him, and that he loved them.
While Harry was adamant that sedation would be tantamount to killing the team, a tragedy struck which caused his hand to be forced.
Navy Seal Commander Saman Gunan was diving to resupply oxygen tanks, before getting into trouble, depleting his own oxygen and falling unconscious. While efforts were made to revive Gunan, he was soon pronounced dead.
Gunan’s death meant the people of Thailand were even more determined to get the boys out safely.
‘These accidents can happen sometimes to anyone in the field, but we will go ahead and keep working,’ one Navy seal said at the time. ‘Our morale is still high.’
As they prepared to go ahead with the plan, Harry, and two medical assistants, were given diplomatic immunity by the Thai authorities should their efforts fail.
Sedation was risky and difficult. Harry warned the other divers – 14 in total, all a mix of nationalities – that they would have to readminister top up doses of drugs to each boy to get them through the winding cave system. He showed them the best way to give drugs intravenously, with the divers all practising injecting plastic water bottles. They had to learn quickly. With more rain reported just days away, they knew that they had to act fast.
On 8 July, all news crews and non-essential persons were cleared from the mushrooming campsite area in preparation for the first extraction. The divers involved steeled themselves, armed with needles loaded with ketamine which were to serve as sedation, to be injected in each boy’s upper thigh. The amount administered to each child depended on the size, with the divers having their needles labelled ‘big kid’ or ‘small kid.’ Harry warned the divers to just administer more ketamine if they worried their child was waking up.
To prevent minimal thrashing or panic, Harry also gave the boys Xanax for its relaxing qualities. They were put in ill-fitting wetsuits, with each child having their own oxygen supply for the journey. Their hands and legs were tied to make transportation easier, with John comparing carrying each child to ‘transporting a package.’
If the children were scared, they didn’t show it, Richard says.
‘They were very trustful and respecting of us,’ he recalls. ‘When Harry told them what they had to do, there was no dissent.’
Once each diver made it to the operating base in the cave, the Navy Seals would bundle the child they were carrying into stretches and saw them winched along the ropes.
It was a huge risk for Harry, who did not know whether any of the children had survived the extraction until he left the caves on the first day.
It took three days for all 12 children, and their coach out the caves, one at a time. They had been trapped in the cave for 17 days in total. Miraculously, they all survived sedation. They were quickly bundled off to hospital, with blankets and sunglasses on to protect their vision, their eyes having adjusted to the gloomy surroundings of the cave. While they were quarantined to check for infection and given simple, plain rice porridge, the boys were all healthy.
‘Everyone was slapping me on the back saying, “Well done doc, that’s it. All done. They’re all out. They’re all alive,”’ Harry remembered in an interview. ‘And I can’t really describe how I felt. I was sort of so exhausted I think, I didn’t really have anything left for emotions at that point, but yeah, it was a good feeling later on.’
Harry, Richard and John all received accolades in their home country for their work.
Harry won the Star of Courage and Australian of the Year in 2019, while Richard and John each won a Pride of Britain award.
According to Viggo Mortensen, who plays Richard in Thirteen Lives, one of the most beautiful and appealing parts of the Thai cave rescue mission was how it exemplified the sheer brilliance of humanity, particularly during a time where we’re often so polarised and divisive.
‘These people were not motivated by selfish behaviour,’ explains the actor, when asked why he chose to be a part of the film honouring the story. ‘Thousands of people all got together from different cultures not to make money or get elected, not to get anything – they came together because it was the right thing to do.
‘We were always conscious of the fact that this is the best of us, the best part of human beings. We hope we did them justice.’
Thirteen Lives is now available to watch on Amazon Prime Video.
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