Cave Boys in Thailand: How Did They Survive?

“The boys gave the idea that we would eat the first one that died. The first one that died would serve as food for all the others to have the energy to survive.”

This is what technician Eakapol Jantawong, or simply Eak, tells in the documentary “The 13 Survivors of the Cave”. The film brings accounts and a reenactment of the rescue of 13 members of a youth soccer team from Thailand, who were trapped in a cave in June 2018 and were only rescued after 17 days.

Known internationally as the “cave boys”, young people do not consider themselves celebrities, and today they continue to lead normal lives between studies and dreams. In the documentary, they tell how they managed to survive and when they lost hope.

The boys say that they considered each other as a family, and decided to visit the cave after training to walk somewhere different. Some had already visited the cave in question, from Tham Luang. Others, who were going for the first time, were quite excited.

Leading the group of 12 boys was coach Eak, 24. Next to him was Tee, considered the “right arm” for being one of the oldest.

How did the boys get trapped?

Cave Boys - Facebook/Nopparat Kanthawong - Facebook/Nopparat Kanthawong

Photo of the boys just before entering the cave, posted on Facebook by their head coach, who didn’t go on the fateful tour

Image: Facebook/Nopparat Kanthawong

The boys say in the documentary that they were excited to explore the cave. Tee already knew the place, so he was confident. Besides, they would only be there for an hour, as one of the boys had private lessons after practice.

On the way, they played, laughed and were very happy. At one point, they came to a fork, divided by a stream that, according to Coach Eak, was there all year.

One of the guys, Mix, says they were afraid the fork would flood and they wouldn’t be able to get out. They took a vote to decide whether to continue the path or leave, but everyone voted to continue.

By the time they were on their way back, the fork had, in fact, filled up. The passage was filled with water, and it was not possible to dive to cross. They decided to wait until the next day for the water to subside — which it didn’t. The more the days passed, the more it rained, and the more water filled the cave.

Did they not know the risks?

Cave boys - AFP - AFP

Some of the boys inside the cave before the rescue operation; boys spent 17 days in jail

Image: AFP

At the entrance to the cave, there was a sign warning that entry was prohibited, as the cave was flooded between July and November.

However, this was the 23rd of June, and the rains had not yet started. They talked and decided to go in anyway, and said a prayer to Nang Non, a spirit that watches over and protects the place according to religious beliefs.

Who found out the boys were in jail?

Ranger Phet Phrommueang had been working at the park for two years, and he was in the habit of checking every night to see if anyone had become trapped in the cave. According to him, it was common for someone to get lost if they did not warn that they would enter the place.

When he reached the cave’s entrance, he saw the 11 bicycles that the boys had parked, and realized that there were people inside. A little further on, he found where the boys had left their cell phones, shoes and backpacks, and discovered that it was a group of children.

From there, the rescue operation began. An expert at the Tham Luang cave explains that few people knew how to navigate the region, given its size and elevations.

Initially, the rescue team had little equipment: ropes and a water pump to try to empty the fork and facilitate the passage. Gradually, other help arrived, but what made the work of the teams difficult was the rain, which did not let up.

What did they do to survive?

cave - Peerarat Thaiingamsin/Netflix - Peerarat Thaiingamsin/Netflix

In ‘The 13 Survivors’, boys say they could only drink water and find a way out while trapped in a cave in Thailand

Image: Peerarat Thaiingamsin/Netflix

The boys say that they always needed to be on the move, so that they had a routine and didn’t despair. Coach Eak considered it his responsibility to make sure they were as well as possible.

Every day, Tee’s alarm clock would go off at 6 am. They considered that not knowing the time and not having a schedule harmed the boys even more.

So there was a routine. From morning until early evening, they walked, always in groups, to find a way out. They walked until they were tired and, as they had no food, the only way to replenish nutrients was to drink water.

Hunger, however, was increasingly critical, which made the boys even more tired and weakened. They dreamed of food and meeting family members. One of them dreamed that he was drinking soy milk, which was his favorite, and woke up sucking the big toe of one of his friends.

However, stress and discomfort increased along with hunger, and everyone was very nervous. However, they had no disagreements. All of them wanted to take the blame, and said they shouldn’t have gone to the bottom of the cave.

At one point, after about 5 days, they had reached one of the highest places in the cave, and they had no way to continue walking in search of a way out. So Coach Eak told the boys that the solution would be to dig one of the walls, and that way they would create a way out.

Rescue - ROYAL THAI NAVY/Reuters - ROYAL THAI NAVY/Reuters

Images of the rescue of one of the boys who spent 18 days in a cave in Thailand; they were transported sedated

Image: ROYAL THAI NAVY/Reuters

Giving that motivation made them have a daily activity and thus some hope. “Life was all about digging and sitting and drinking water. That’s all,” says the boy named Titan.

This continued until approximately the 9th, when the power was gone. It was on that day that they believed they were on the edge between life and death, and they agreed to eat the first one that died, to have energy for the following days. They agreed that if there was no help by the next day, they would give up.

When did help arrive?

At this point, the rescue already had international help, and divers from countries such as the United States, China, Australia and England were already in Thailand to contribute to the rescue.

The divers who reached the boys first came early on the 10th, and they were professionals from the United States.

For this, they spent a few days making their way under the waters. The divers took turns carrying a red rope so they would have a guide. Each diver took the rope a little farther—always snagging a few knots in rocks along the way.

When all the boys were found alive, they were given help, food and medical care. However, the rescue team still didn’t know how to get the 13 boys out of there alive.

Why were they sedated?

boys in hospital - Government Spokesman Bureau/Handout via REUTERS TV - Government Spokesman Bureau/Handout via REUTERS TV

11.Jul.2018 – Boys rescued from a cave in Thailand are treated at a hospital in Chiang Rai

Image: Government Spokesman Bureau/Handout via REUTERS TV

Even with pumps pumping water from the cave day and night for nearly two weeks, the path was still flooded, and there was no safe way to get them to the surface.

At one point, the Thai government considered leaving the boys inside the cave until the rainy season passed, sending supplies during that period, which would be four months.

They soon realized that it was not a viable option, mainly due to hygiene issues and lack of oxygen. Not rescuing them would be synonymous with a slow death.

The solution was to sedate the boys to get them out of there submerged. It was not possible to take them out conscious, because the journey was long, about three hours, and nervousness could interfere with the operation.

Even so, sedation was also a risk. There could be thermal shock from the change in temperature or drowning if water got into the oxygen masks. “If I administer this anesthesia, they will probably die”, thought, at the time, the anesthesiologist and Australian diver Richard “Harry” Harris. “But at least they’ll be sleeping when they die.”

It’s hard to describe what it feels like to push an unconscious child into the water. There is no more heinous act. But a strong competitor is tying someone’s hands behind their back. I could be signing these boys’ death warrants. Richard “Harry” Harris, anesthesiologist

Life after rescue

Despite the risks, the 12 players and the coach made it out of the cave alive, being taken directly to the hospital. The “status” of celebrities they gained after the rescue came as a shock to them.

“I don’t see myself as a celebrity, I’m just a boy who got stuck in a cave and became famous because other people helped him,” confesses one of the boys. “When it was all over, I had to be more polite, so that people would see that they rescued good boys.”

“I can’t act as I want, I have to behave and try hard at school not to disappoint, because we were rescued,” adds another.

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