These divers had a pretty chill life in Thailand. Then came the cave rescue mission.
July 17 at 11:01 AM Email the author
Nang Yuan Island, a diving destination off Koh Tao, Thailand (John W Banagan/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images)
CHIANG RAI, Thailand â" Longtime dive school partners Mikko Paasi and Ivan Karadzic were on different continents when they got the calls for help.
Paasi, 43, rushed to this northern Thai city from Malta on July 2, his eighth wedding anniversary, to meet up with Karadzic, who had cut short a vacation cave-diving near the Thai province of Krabi, and one of their close friends, Erik Brown, a Canadian diver.
The Thai government, the divers said, had told them it needed their expertise and specialized equipment for an audacious mission: to locate and ultimately, it was hoped, extricate 12 young boys and their soccer coach from a flooded cave by diving them out.
[âTime is running outâ: Inside the treacherous rescue of boys trapped in a Thai cave]
Part of a small, tightknit group of technical divers used to a laid-back life on the resort island of Koh Tao, the three eventually became a crucial part of the effort to shepherd the boys through the caveâs narrow, mud-clogged passages, as the world waited and watched. U.S. military officials described them as among the worldâs top cave divers, whose niche passion helped pull off an undertaking many thought would end in multiple deaths.
âIf you can use the skill set to help in any way you can, you have to,â said Brown, 36. âLots of people would have done it â" we just happened to be really close.â
Koh Tao, the trioâs base in the Gulf of Thailand, has lured divers since the late 1980s with its clear aquamarine wate rs, sunny weather and easy access to dive spots. Jim Donaldson, a partner and manager at Big Blue Diving, a Koh Tao dive school, estimates that there were just six dive shops on the eight-square-mile island in 2000, a year after he arrived, compared to about 65 now.
âIt just really absolutely exploded,â he said.
Koh Taoâs status as a dive capital has followed Thailandâs transformation into a global tourism hub. Last year, more than 35 million people visited the Southeast Asian country, according to the national tourism authority, accounting for some 12 percent of its gross domestic product.
Karadzic, 44, was just another tourist when he visited Koh Tao in 2006 on a recreational-diving holiday from his home in Denmark. The trip, he said, was life-changing.
âI was sucked back into diving,â he said in an interview from Koh Tao, where heâd returned last week after the last group of boys was freed from the cave and recovering along with the ot hers in a hospital.
He quit his job in Denmark, sold his apartment and moved to Koh Tao to become a dive instructor. He started teaching others to dive in 2007 and now runs a technical diving school with Paasi. Brown runs his own professional cave-diving school on the island.
As news spread of the boysâ disappearance on June 23, Paasi and his friends put out a call to action on their Facebook pages. They first asked for specialized gear that could help Thai navy divers navigate the Tham Luang cave complex outside Mae Sai, in northern Thailand, where the boys were stranded.
Dive shops on Koh Tao readily obliged.
âEveryone came together,â Donaldson said. âWe all put equipment through, and they were desperate. They obviously needed a lot of equipment up there.â Brown and another diver involved in the rescue effort, Ben Reymenants, originally from Belgium, had worked previously at Big Blue Diving, he said.
Soon, though, it was c lear that the Thai Navy SEALs, trained for open-water diving, did not have the skills to properly search the flooded cave chambers for the boys. The call changed from one for equipment to one for able divers, Karadzic said. The divers started making plans to travel to Mae Sai and urged others in their network to join them.
âThamluang urgently needs STRONG diving volunteers!!!!â the Finnish-born Paasi wrote in a Facebook post a day before he left Malta, attaching a hand-drawn, cross-sectional map of the cave.
Describing the job, he wrote: âYou must be able to: know how to breathe through a regulator and pull yourself using the guide rope against cold (~ 20C) and strong current, in low visibility without panicking.â
Danish diving instructor Ivan Karadzic near the cave complex on July 4, four days before the first gro up of 12 trapped boys was rescued. (Panu Wongcha-um/Reuters)
Karadzic and Brown arrived in Chiang Rai together on the morning of July 2. Hours later, two British cave divers found the boys, emaciated and huddled on a slippery outcrop above the water. The search mission was instantly transformed into a rescue mission. Karadzic, Brown and Paasi worked with a team of 15 others, including British divers and Thai Navy SEALs, whom officials described as âall-stars.â
[Meet the British âA-teamâ divers at the center of Thailand cave rescue]
During the three days it took to pull the boys and their coach from the cave, Paasi was stationed deep inside, helping move the sedated boys swaddled in flexible stretchers from one dive spot to the next.
âSpecial people, special skills and special equipment got together,â Paasi said.
The core group of 18 divers ferried the boys to a larger team of international rescuers, who then hooked the boys one by one i nto a complex belay system and transported them through the caveâs dry chambers, across fields of rocks and boulders.
Since divers spoke mainly in English, interpreters were needed to ensure that 54-year-old Tan Xiaolong, a Chinese diver stationed with U.S. Air Force rescuers receiving the boys as they emerged from the water, would understand all the commands.
âThe Thai side also sent interpreters who could translate Chinese into Thai,â Tan said.
But there was one command that needed no translation. Tan was the diver tasked with holding a static guide rope leading out of the cave so he could feel the tug signaling when a diver was bringing a boy out of the water and preparing to pass him to the next stage.
âIt was clear and strong, with a distinct rhythm,â he said of the first time he felt it. âAt this moment, I knew the first child had been successfully rescued, and I felt very moved.â
All 12 boys and their 25-year-old coach were rescued, alive, by nightfall on July 10. They will be released from hospital Thursday after a period of quarantine and treatment for minor infections, returning home to Mae Sai almost a month after they went missing.
Back on Koh Tao, the Facebook pages of the divers and dive shops were flooded with praise and encouragement in Thai and English as each boy emerged safely.
âWatching it here in Koh Tao, watching it sort of live as it unfolded, and knowing that these boys were involved helping get these kids out â" it was cool,â Donaldson said. âIt was very cool.â
Video from Thai navy shows the scene inside Tham Luang cave during dramatic rescue
The extreme leadership that got the Thai soccer boys out of the cave alive
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