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Improbable rescue

The documentary The Rescue recounts the herculean effort to save young soccer players trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand


Thai rescue teams arrange a water pumping system at the entrance to a flooded cave complex where the soccer team was trapped in the summer of 2018. Associated Press/Royal Thai Navy

Improbable rescue

The world held its breath.

The plan to rescue a Thai boys soccer team, lost in a vast cave system flooded with monsoon rainwater, was so preposterous that those who devised it doubted they could carry it off. The Rescue, a new National Geographic documentary playing in a limited number of theaters, revisits the summer of 2018 when a ragtag team of cave-diving enthusiasts attempted one of the most improbable rescues ever.

News footage and interviews with principal figures detail the technical complexities and massive volunteer effort. Thailand’s Navy SEALs didn’t have the expertise to dive Tham Luang Nang Non’s “raging” subterranean rivers and navigate its tight underwater passages. So the Thai government enlisted “two scruffy-looking middle-aged” Brits, Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, who called on a handful of other experienced cave divers from the United Kingdom and Australia. Above ground, thousands of people filled sandbags, dug trenches, and operated pumps to slow the water flowing into the cave.

On day 10, Stanton and Volanthen located the 12 boys and their coach, all remarkably alive on a small “beach” 2 kilometers back into the bowels of the cave. Stanton’s personal video shows the boys and their coach calm but thin, having survived only on cave water.

“Finding the boys was the easy part,” he says in the film (rated PG for a few expletives.) Time was short. The small chamber’s oxygen level was dangerously low, and one more day of rain would spell disaster for the mission.

Divers rescued several pump workers stranded by a mere 40-second dive from the entrance, but they panicked mid-swim and nearly drowned. Lesson learned: Teaching the boys and their coach how to scuba dive for nearly three hours in pitch-black water was out of the question.

Stanton brought in Richard Harris, an Australian anesthesiologist and experienced cave diver. To his dismay, Harris realized the only option was sedating the team members. Then the divers would submerge their unconscious bodies—“It felt like euthanasia,” Harris winces—and tow them one by one. He feared many things, such as the boys’ diving masks becoming dislodged. And since the sedative would last only 40 minutes, Harris gave the other divers a “little anesthesia 101 lesson” for administering the ketamine along the way. The “plan [was] so preposterous,” the rescuers agree.

The documentary shows the reunited families’ elation, but doesn’t interview the boys or the coach. What were they thinking when Harris initially administered their sedative, knowing they might never wake up alive?

The Rescue is worth watching to celebrate anew the lives saved. The courageous divers cite “personal responsibility” and making up for always having been “picked last for cricket teams” as motivations. Surely, though, there’s something greater we all sense but don’t often live out: Being created in God’s image makes every person’s life, from conception to natural death, worth extravagant efforts to protect.


Bob Brown

Bob is a movie reviewer for WORLD. He is a World Journalism Institute graduate and works as a math professor. Bob resides with his wife, Lisa, and five kids in Bel Air, Md.

@RightTwoLife

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