Unity of effort
An international team pulls together to save soccer youths from a flooded Thai cave
Cmdr. Pinyo Rungrueng
When Thai Navy SEALs arrived at Tham Luang Nang Non cave on June 24, 2018, they faced daunting challenges in trying to find 12 boys, ages 11 to 17, and their soccer coach.
A continuous rainfall raised water levels. Inside the dark cave, extremely cold water flowed with rapid currents. The SEALs had to work around dangerous stalactites and stalagmites, electrical and telephone lines, rough surfaces, and crooked cave passages that were cramped and unlevel. No maps of the cave interior were available, and adapting to these environmental conditions took precious time.
The Thai Navy SEALs might not have been called to the scene as quickly as they were if not for a twist of fate.
The SEALs commander assigned me to operational control tasked with deploying 14 members of the First Special Forces Group by Thai Navy aircraft to Chiang Rai province. I stayed behind to coordinate operations and support the transport of materiel from U-Tapao Royal Thai Navy Airfield to Chiang Rai airport. The operation continued to provide daily troop and equipment support after it appeared that the mission objective might not be achieved. Various agencies and 127 Navy SEALs provided supplies that were mobilized in seven waves.
ASSESSING THE SITUATION
Rescuers and aid agencies did not immediately have a firm grasp of the situation at the area of operations. The Thai Navy Central Command first sent a five-man special operations team. We had planned to get additional support from the Mekong River Special Operations Unit, but it was unavailable. Instead, 14 Thai Navy SEALs deployed to the cave area, and they determined the need for staffing and equipment.
First, the team requested protective and life-support equipment. Then, we modified many operational methods. Before assigning tasks, we needed to assess the abilities of the divers reporting to duty from various groups, under the supervision of the Thai Navy SEALs. At one point, we used divers to transport air tanks inside the cave to chamber three, a dry area about a half-kilometer from the entrance. The divers took on that task, and we came to know that the group’s skill level was high enough to deliver air tanks all the way to a slope called Nuen Nom Sao, about 1.6 kilometers into the cave, where the path diverged in three directions.
LOCATING THE TEAM
Following the Thai Navy SEALs’ plan, rescuers made search attempts with the support of foreign divers who took turns extending the ropes by 200 meters per team. Three main teams operated: Thai Navy SEALs, British divers and an independent group of European divers. Finally, after more than seven days of fruitless searching, the British team extended the last set of ropes and discovered the children on July 2, 2018.
The focus then turned to finding a way to get the team out with support from domestic and foreign divers. Using cave information supplied by the Thai Navy SEALs to Command and Control, we began to consider other ways to bring the children out, because an underwater cave rescue would be extremely difficult and dangerous. The day came, however, when pressing factors led us to decide to move quickly and bring them out.
The oxygen level within the cave had severely diminished. Rain fell hard, meaning water levels inside the cave would flood higher within the next three or four days.
We created a plan based on the capacity and abilities of Thai Navy SEALs personnel and equipment available at that time. However, assessments showed an extremely high risk, so we had to use other methods to prolong time, such as running oxygen lines into the cave to increase oxygen levels. Some foreign divers viewed this as a wasted effort, but we had to do it. It was the only thing we could do at the time, and we felt it was better than doing nothing. We also continued to consider alternatives, including looking for an opening on the mountain to drill a passage down to the children to bring them out that way.
UNDERWATER RESCUE RISKS RUN HIGH
Due to the great risks involved, a higher agency instructed the rescue coordination center to figure out a way that would not risk the children’s lives. We — the Thai Navy SEALs — thought that such a way did not exist. Every one of us at Command and Control was under extreme pressure because of the public’s high expectations. The foreign dive teams also pushed to bring the children out as soon as possible, even if there was a good chance not all of them would survive.
From a risk management point of view, this was the way to go. However, from a psychological point of view, we had to make use of the time at hand to find the best possible way to operate and reduce the risk.
The Thai government, British divers, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command divers and Australian police divers collaborated and provided information to recruit additional expert cave divers, including Dr. Richard Harris, who came from Australia to join the mission. This made our work much easier and reduced the risk significantly, because we now had 13 skilled cave divers with a great deal of experience.
The units jointly developed a plan and presented it to the administrative control center, with final approval coming from Thailand’s Ministry of Interior. We conducted joint rehearsals of the plan, which also involved testing the dive equipment for the children.
We knew the importance of doing this properly. Had we rushed at the beginning to bring the children out, the mission might not have had the wonderful — even miraculous — success it did.
An operation of this magnitude presented many unique challenges. A series of chambers — linked by winding tunnels — between the cave’s main entrance and the soccer team added to the complications.
The initial plan was to lay a phone line from chamber three, where rescuers located the front tactical operations, from the three-way fork at Neun Nom Sao, 1.6 kilometers inside the cave, to the destination, about 2.5 kilometers inside the cave. But it could not be completed because the team lacked 5-millimeter-thick diving suits and would have risked hypothermia.
Installation of 3/8-inch oxygen pipes to raise the oxygen level within the cave area where the 13 victims were trapped could only be brought as far as chamber three, about 1.1 kilometers from the soccer team members. The divers could not drag the oxygen pipes past blockages inside the cave within the time constraints. However, the pipes at least proved useful in increasing the oxygen level in chamber three where the rescue operations were taking place. The large number of personnel inside had consequentially raised the rate of oxygen use.
Some of the items and tools brought to chamber three and to where the 13 trapped cave victims were located were damaged because the packaging did not withstand the water pressure during underwater navigation. Confusion also spread among the support team responsible for placing the items at certain locations.
The death of former SEALs diver Lt. Cmdr. Saman Kunan caused the team to halt operations and review practices and operational safety. His loss became motivation to continue our work in strong spirits. Unit commanders and senior naval chiefs encouraged and motivated us, displaying a strong sense of leadership. Most of our personnel did not lose heart nor appear discouraged about the mission.
OBSTACLES AND PROBLEMS
During the execution phase of the rescue, some agencies entered the area of operations without involvement in the plan and without authority. This caused additional confusion and endangered the victims. The search and rescue center had assigned the Thai Navy SEALs to supervise operations and set up the Command and Control Center for the rescue, with the support of international divers. We conducted an operational briefing session with “rock drills” to inform the various units. However, some agencies did not participate in the exercises, causing problems in executing some details of the operation.
Some requests for supplies from third parties did not go through the SEALs Command and Control Center, causing an excess of materiel and tools and a lack of storage space.
Certain agencies and individuals participating in Thai Navy SEALs operations and people arriving to offer support violated operational security measures, causing negative consequences to the operations and news leaks.
There was confusion of information coming from competing media organizations that wanted fast news rather than accurate news. This caused confusion in the operations. This could have been resolved by establishing a news center at the search and rescue center from the beginning of operations throughout the end of the mission.
Our units had no experience, training or certification in cave diving. We need to consider organizing a cave diving course to prepare ourselves for future events like this, both at home and in support of partner countries.
The dive units’ basic diving equipment was inadequate and not in prime condition. Additionally, we had not previously acquired cave diving equipment, so we need to consider proposing these procurements.
Lead organizers established Command, Control and Communications in front of the cave using checkpoints, personnel and equipment to reduce confusion from outside units and from inaccurate information (the so-called fog of war). Additionally, a factor in the mission’s success was the use of systems that facilitated the use of equipment and maintained continuous situational awareness (for example, OODA Loop — observe, orient, decide and act) to enable prompt problem solving.
Thailand, the host nation, had the lead in the administration and planning of operations. Some countries tried to play leadership roles, but the Thai Navy SEALs maintained a continual leadership role in planning, command and control throughout the rescue and until the successful completion of the mission.
The United States also deployed highly capable personnel to assist in the rescue, and they gave their all, greatly impressing the Thai Navy SEALs, both in their participation in planning stages and the advice they provided in the coordination process, which resulted in the mission’s success. We saw this in our day-to-day operations. A U.S. official was always on duty, 24 hours a day, at the Operations Control Group, offering to perform operations inside the cave without hesitation whenever necessary in accordance with Command and Control’s plans. This greatly impressed the Thai Navy SEALs and other operation teams.
Besides that, during times of crisis when critical decisions had to be made, a high-ranking U.S. official — who asked to remain anonymous — came in to offer opinions and advice. He stayed with us the entire time without ever going to the media or giving interviews about the work in the cave. This impressed me very much.
I, a Thai Navy SEAL, made a true friend out of this experience. If in the future this friend needs any assistance from me, I will be happy to help immediately.
AN ATMOSPHERE OF TRUST
This experience brought together a lot of teams, domestic and foreign, that volunteered to take on duties and responsibilities for different reasons. For many, their “capital investment” was their own knowledge and abilities, which were many and varied. Contributors included a compressed air group, a water pump group, an oxygen tank transport group, a group for putting reserve air tanks in place, and another to give aid and treatment for the children in the cave. The efforts also included the group that brought the kids out of the cave and the group that took care of them once they were out. I believe the people in those groups used their knowledge and abilities to the fullest extent. It is difficult to give special credit to any single person, group or agency. I believe that no one was a hero, but that there was only a grand cooperation of everyone in the world who hoped that the kids would be safe, who wouldn’t let anything stand in the way, no matter nationality, religion or belief, because their — and our — happiness is in making others happy.
Cmdr. Pinyo Rungrueng serves as commander, SEAL Team 2, Naval Special Warfare Group 1, Royal Thai Navy Special Warfare Command. As the operations officer for the rescue mission, he provided this first-person account for FORUM.
2018 Timeline of Events
June 24 Upon assignment to the mission, 14 Thai Navy SEALs entered the area and immediately got to work after the briefing.
June 25 Rescuers conducted a search, penetrating a previously blocked passageway inside the cave, and divers going in 400 meters found handprints and footprints.
July 2 A Thai Navy SEALs dive team, an independent European dive team and a British dive team alternated in placing leading ropes from the three-way junction. Each team placed 200 meters of rope and once the British divers placed the last 200 meters of rope, additional rope was used to extend the lead deeper into the cave where divers found the 13 trapped people.
July 3 Medical assistance, food and water, and mental health support were provided. This took place in two steps. Step 1: Four divers with life-support equipment and power cells went in to provide assistance to the victims and keep them company, while also making assessments of the internal structure to ensure safety. Step 2: Three divers and one doctor went in to help with medical treatment, provide food and water, and help victims with physical and mental recovery.
July 7 The Royal Thai Navy Command and Control and U.S. divers worked together to develop a plan. The team announced the plan to the various units and initiated rehearsal of the operations. Rescuers prepared full-face masks and delivered food and necessities to the children with the support of international divers, including dive teams from the United Kingdom, Europe, the U.S., Australia and China.
July 8 Following the rescue plan, divers brought out four children on the first attempt. The plan was for the entire rescue to occur over a period of four days, split into three rounds. Each of the rounds included two steps: 12 hours for preparation and 12 hours for the actual rescue.
July 9 In the second round of the rescue plan, divers were able to bring out four more children.
July 10 In the third round, four children and the coach were brought out. Four members of the Thai Navy SEALs dive team emerged, and the rescue mission was complete.