World News

Step Inside the Thai Cave

Posted July 21, 2018 2:23 p.m. EDT

Light vanished. Jagged rocks invited flesh wounds. Mud made every step treacherous. Monsoon rains poured in, turning crevices into muddy morasses and deluging entire passageways with rushing currents.

“You cannot let your mind slip out of focus, because when you start thinking, ‘I’m going to get stuck,’ that’s when you panic,” said Ruengrit Changkwanyuen, who trekked and dove through Tham Luang Cave to aid the search and rescue of 13 members of the Wild Boars youth soccer team who were trapped inside. “You cannot think about anything else besides the task at hand.”

Ruengrit, a Thai manager for General Motors, rushed to the cave from Bangkok after seeing a television segment on the missing boys.

The rescuers, both civilian volunteers and Thai Navy SEALs, faced an overwhelming set of hazards. The path to the soccer team was largely uncharted, deep underground and a mile and a half long. One stretch was submerged in frigid floodwaters for the length of seven Olympic swimming pools.

In another spot, near the entrance to the cave’s second chamber, Ruengrit had to climb and edge forward in a stoop. He scrambled down sheer, slick rocks. One misstep, and he could have fallen to his death. “It’s a long way down,” he said.

From Chamber 2 to Chamber 3, he had to scale a precipitous muddy slope, alternating between a crouch and a crawl.

He entered an underwater portion, facing a rushing current he compared to a waterfall. He had to plant his feet firmly or the current could have swept him away. And he had to position his head straight into the current, or the water would rip the mask off his face.

At one point, he swam underwater for about an hour, in a 100 meter stretch near a fork in the cave. The murky, muddy water had “zero” visibility, he said. Even when Ruengrit put his hand in front of his facemask, he couldn’t see anything at all.

Instead, they worked their way forward, inch by inch, by touching the rock faces with their hands and tying guidelines to the stalagmites and stalactites.

In the narrowest parts of the cave, rescuers detached their air tanks and approached a crevice feet first. To get through one fissure, Ruengrit had to approach at an angle and squirm through with his air tank held up by his head.

In the deepest reaches of the cave, one underwater section stretched for roughly 350 meters. (Ruengrit did not go that far). On the other side, the rescuers discovered the 13 team members stranded on a rocky reach in small atrium above the water. They had survived in this space by licking the condensation from the limestone walls.

During the search and rescue, Ruengrit heard the thunderous sound of the water rumbling through the cave, as liquid filled air pockets and echoed through the Tham Luang complex.

Ruengrit said that the difficulty was not just the cave diving but also the hauling of heavy gear through the steep, slippery sections of the cave. Air tanks had to be constantly carried out to be refilled.

“Cave divers are a little bit crazy,” he said. “We do things that most people don’t want to do. It’s dark, it’s cold, it’s very narrow. But I like the feeling of adventure.”