‘It was a preposterous plan’: Behind the scenes of the Thai cave rescue


On a sizzling day in June 2018, 12 boys and their soccer coach headed right down to the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in northern Thailand for a picnic. The cave was like a playground for the native kids; they’d go there to discover after observe earlier than biking dwelling for dinner. But not this time. When early monsoon rains brought on the cave to flood, the kids and their coach discovered themselves trapped in a pitch-black chamber 4 kilometres deep. As the world’s media descended and the drama unfolded over 18 nerve-wracking days, few would have guessed that two gruff blokes from Britain can be the ones to rescue them.

But one man, a minimum of, was not shocked. “We knew the mission had our names all over it,” says 60-year-old former firefighter Rick Stanton. He and 50-year-old IT advisor John Volanthen, who each cave dive for enjoyable, had been the first divers to achieve the kids. “We’re used to going into caves all over the world and we’d been involved in other rescues,” Stanton continues. “We knew we were among the best-placed people in the world to go there and make a difference. But why would you suppose that two British middle-aged men would do the rescue? That was the strange thing. But we were really relieved when we got the call.”

The unassuming pair are at the centre of The Rescue. The fascinating new documentary makes use of in depth interviews, Royal Thai navy footage and underwater re-enactments to inform the extraordinary story of how – after two and a half agonising weeks – all of the boys, some as younger as 11, and their 25-year-old coach had been saved from the cave. One Thai navy seal, Saman Gunan, suffocated to demise whereas making an attempt to rescue the kids, and his story is movingly informed in the documentary. Another, Beirut Pakbara, died the 12 months after the mission on account of a blood an infection he contracted whereas in the cave.

The movie is made by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin, the administrators of the Oscar-winning climbing documentary Free Solo. “As parents of Asian kids, Jimmy and I really followed this story,” says Vasarhelyi, who’s married to Chin and has two kids with him. “We were struck by how so many people from different walks of life and countries and languages came together to really do something that seemed absolutely impossible. Like many people, I didn’t think the children would survive. I mean, it was 10 days before they were found. The whole world was watching, and I think that’s because it’s a story that reminds you of your common humanity. It was riveting.”

Vasarhelyi’s documentary is totally riveting, too. It maintains suspense regardless of the undeniable fact that everyone knows how the story ends. This is partly right down to the fascinating particulars it reveals – for instance, the scrap of paper upon which Chiang Rai-based caver Vern Unsworth scribbled down the names of the greatest divers in the world. While the Thai royal navy had been on the scene from the begin, and their efforts helped result in the secure rescue of the boys, individuals with lifetime caving expertise had been wanted. It was on that scrap of paper, swiftly handed to a Thai minister, that Stanton and Volanthen’s names appeared.

“Suddenly, this pastime they’d done at the weekends for 40 years became a calling,” says Vasarhelyi. “It prepared them for this moment. They didn’t hesitate. They put everything on the line. And they really thought that saving just one child would be a success. Their moral courage really moved me.”

During the males’s first dive by the cave’s murky waters, they stumbled upon 4 grownup pump employees who’d change into trapped. No one had seen they had been lacking. As the divers carried them out underwater, the pump employees panicked a lot that they almost drowned. Their journey was simply 30 seconds they usually had been grown males. The realisation dawned that, if the divers had been to achieve discovering the boys deeper inside the cave system, they must sedate them to get them out.

Family members and kinfolk pray at the entrance of Tham Luang cave whereas rescue personnel conduct operations


The footage of Stanton and Volanthen discovering the kids on day 10 is staggering. After he emerges from the water to search out the boys huddled on a rock, Volanthen could be heard in the video saying: “Believe, believe.” He wasn’t addressing the kids or Stanton – he was speaking to himself, unable to understand what he was seeing. Stanton says that second was surreal. “I was looking at him incredulously, thinking, ‘They’re all here in front of us, why are you saying that?’” he recollects. “I was stunned by his response. But we had assumed all the boys would be drowned.”

When the divers got here again to the mouth of the cave, the subsequent query was the way to safely sedate the boys. An Australian anaesthetist and cave diver, Dr Richard Harris, concocted a sedative that could possibly be used on the kids – a cocktail of Xanax, ketamine and atropine – in order that they could possibly be carried underwater in scuba gear, with out waking up, for the two-and-a-half hour journey. Harris’s interviews are amongst the most transferring in the documentary, his eyes filling with tears as he recollects pushing the unconscious kids’s heads beneath the water. “It felt very wrong,” he says. “It felt like euthanasia.”

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Thai troopers relay electrical cable deep into the Tham Luang cave


The divers had a sophisticated mission forward of them. They must high up the kids’s sedatives themselves mid-journey, as one dose alone wouldn’t final the complete means. They introduced down physique baggage with them “in case things did go south”.

The rescue itself came about throughout three days, with Stanton and Volanthen aided by a global cave diving group. They needed to be fast – air provide in the cave was dwindling and extra monsoon rains had been in the forecast. “We’d set up this plan and practised it in a swimming pool, of how we were going to carry the boys, as if they were inert packages,” says Stanton. “But once I got there and saw each child being sedated and pushed under the water unconscious, that brought it home. They weren’t really packages, they were people. Even though we’d planned it to the nth degree, it didn’t really hit us that that’s what we were doing until we were actually doing it. Even to this day, knowing the outcome and having made the plan ourselves, it just seems so preposterous that it worked. It was a preposterous plan.”

Weerasak Kowsurat, Thai Minister of Sports and Tourism, with the scrap of paper exhibiting the greatest cave divers in the world

(National Geographic)

One of the largest obstacles in making the movie, says Vasarhelyi, was securing footage that the Thai navy seals had taken inside the cave. The pandemic had made it a lot tougher to construct belief and rapport with the Seals. “We pursued the footage for two years over Zoom,” she says. “There are just some things you can’t achieve remotely. I finally went to Thailand in April 2021 and they agreed to share it. The material is astonishing. All those critical moments were actually documented in some way: when Rick and John first found the children, the motivational cheer, the children eating for the first time, the blankets, when Dr Harris anaesthetised a child, the very end of the rescue when you see 200 people handing each other stretchers with the children on them.”

After the final youngster was out, the rescue group cracked open a bottle of Jack Daniel’s in the cave. “We couldn’t let our guard down until the last boy,” recollects Stanton. “It was exceptionally risky. Until we got the last one out, nothing was certain. It was fantastic knowing we’d actually done it.”

The 12 boys and their coach perched on a ledge, captured in footage taken by Stanton and Volanthen

(National Geographic)

Another problem in making The Rescue was that after the boys had been saved, a bidding struggle came about over the rights to the story. Netflix ended up with the rights for the boys’ accounts and National Geographic, which made The Rescue, acquired the rights for the divers’. For that motive, the documentary’s focus is solely on them and their backgrounds.

Stanton’s story, which he has written about in his ebook Aquanaut, is a robust one. The boys in the Thai cave survived, however he has labored on much less profitable missions. He has eliminated lifeless our bodies from caves earlier than, “about nine times” he thinks. One of them was his greatest pal’s. “Pretty much all of them I knew,” he says. “It’s a very small community. I’m used to stumbling across bodies. Don’t forget, I was a fireman, too.”

Rick Stanton with the George Medal for bravery in 2019


He has by no means sought remedy to cope with the trauma he’s encountered. “You just get accustomed to it and talk it through with your peers in the fire service or the rescue team,” he says. “It’s sad, of course, and tragic, but you’re always analysing what happened and working out a way to avoid it happening to you.”

The Thai cave rescue has had a enormous impression on his life. He was a native superstar in Coventry when he first returned from Thailand, and in addition to releasing his ebook, he’s been working with the documentary makers and the Hollywood movie producers. “Not one day has passed in three and a half years where I haven’t had something to do with Thai rescue in some way shape or form,” he says. “It certainly has been a huge feature in my life.”

Vasarhelyi says it’s “bittersweet that the film’s essence – the idea of doing the right thing, being generous – has only become more poignant through the pandemic”.

“I just hope the film, and the lengths these divers went to in order to save 13 strangers, reminds audiences of that common humanity,” she provides. “It’s about being connected in these politically and physically separate times.”

National Geographic movie ‘The Rescue’ is out now in UK cinemas

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