When the boys of a Thai soccer team were missing in a flooded cave last June, a frightened world watched and waited.
In this second excerpt of his gripping account of rescue, research reporter LIAM COCHRANE describes how the race seemed to be lost against time.
But then a miracle happened …
After being trapped for ten days, the boys in the Thai cave disaster were desperate, hallucinating and staring slowly (pictured, four of the boys posing in front of the camera during a Facebook Live stream)
The mothers and fathers lost confidence. When the boys and their football coach were missing on Saturday afternoon in the cave of Tham Luang, doctors had told them not to worry – people could live without food for days as long as they had water, what the boys did.
But now it was Wednesday, day five. Doubts grew. Were their boys still alive? For the father of the 16-year night, this was when his hope began to falter.
It was hard not to imagine that their weak little bodies are wasting away in the darkness. What were they doing? Were they scared? How long could they survive?
The father of Biw had already felt the despair after he had entered the flooded cave to help with the rescue, the cold of the thin underground air and the water ruthlessly passing by. But he was determined to take at least the body of his son home funeral.
The conditions were not better for the rescuers. The SEALs of the Special Forces of the Thai Navy that steered the operation focused at least on the T-junction – a crucial milestone about one and a half kilometers in the complex cave system that swept through the mountain.
Thai soldiers carrying equipment in the flooded cave complex during a rescue operation for a missing youth football team and their coach in the Tham Luang Cave in Non Non Forest Park of Khun Nam
But they made barely 100 meters. The strong current, somewhere between a fast moving river and rapids with white water, drove them back. With all the mud and debris in the swirling water, a diver compared it to swimming in a vortex of café latte & # 39 ;.
Ben Reymenants, a Belgian who ran a diving school in the city of Phuket, went inside with a guide of thick rope to attach themselves to the walls and to drag on. He stepped forward, staggered in this way and that, and tried not to hit too hard against the erratic walls and protrusions.
He got stuck in narrow parts of the flooded room. The dive computer broke on his wrist. His helmet was battered against the wall. He managed to lay about 100 meters of line, but in the end conditions were too great.
& # 39; It was beyond my personal limits, "he said. Just too many red flags – can not see, got caught in a limitation, downflows, broken computer.
& # 39; And there is no guarantee that the children are still alive, there is no guarantee that they are where we think they are, so it is a double speculation. You risk your life for a if … & # 39;
There was also a sombre feeling among British specialized cave divers who had come to take part. When they saw how quickly the cave was flooded, they seriously doubted that the 12 boys from the Wild Boars football team and their coach would still be alive.
Yet no one was willing to give up. The urge everyone felt to save them was too strong. Thousands of people were now involved in the international operation, supported by volunteers.
Food trucks, including mobile kitchens sent by the king of Thailand from his palace, served 20,000 hot meals a day. Huge vessels with curry were stirred with ladles of large vessels.
Relief workers had batteries, socks, underwear, painkillers, balms, soap and candy at home. In addition to the medical tent, masseuses gave free neck rubs to relieve stress. Hairdressers offered to cut hair.
Outside the site, more generosity was largely unseen. Hotels, resorts and village houses opened their doors to rescue teams offering accommodation, meals and laundry clothes, also for free.
The story of the 12 Thai schoolboys who were stuck in a cave became a worldwide phenomenon
Marking the morale among the Thais was revived when a respected Buddhist monk came, meditated at the entrance of the cave and appealed to the spirits of the Sleeping Lady's Mountain to let the boys out.
He stated: "Do not worry – in a day or two the children will come out. When the parents heard the forecast, their hopes rose again.
But the best omen of all was that the monsoon that caused the flood had stopped and that the divers could come back into the cave. Meanwhile, on the mountain, drilling teams are using machines to drill holes, down where a microphone could be put down to listen to life.
They could only properly estimate where the boys would be in the cave complex.
But at the least, they argued, they would make a racket with their exercises, and the sound quivered and echoed through the porous limestone. This would send a message to the wild boars that help would come. & # 39; If I was in the dark for six days, & # 39; explained an engineer, "I imagine that I might lose hope, so we drilled to make noise and keep the children hopeful. & # 39;
And indeed, in the cave, amidst the constant drip of water and the splits and scratches of their digging, the boys sometimes heard noises. One day Titan thought he heard a helicopter. Biw heard a rooster crowing. Another time a dog barked – everyone heard that.
Rescuers are led to the entrance of the cave complex during the rescue operation
Where did the sounds come from? Was their minds grinding them? Some sounds gave them hope, but others scared them. On the ledge deep in the mountains, sometimes we heard the voices of people talking at the bottom of the hill, but we did not see anyone there, Biw said.
Even more frightening was the unnerving sound of someone who mentioned his name. It evoked Thai horror stories of spirits. Coach Ek told us that if we have someone & # 39; calling our names at night, not answering, & # 39; Biw said.
There, in the cave, time literally went up. Of the three watches the boys went inside, there was only one at work, but at least it made sure that they had a routine in the dark.
In the morning they filled their stomachs with the water that flowed from the stalactites and pulled them to the top of the slope to dig in the back, hoping to find a route. When the 16-year-old Tee told them it was night, they went to sleep on the hard sand.
It was not comfortable and they noticed that they were constantly slipping down the slope.
When they slept, it was usually in short shreds.
But there was something else that kept them awake at night. Even at home, Titan was, at the youngest eleven, a restless sleeper who sometimes sleepwalking to the toilet. It was worse in the cave. He talked and screamed in his sleep, keeping the others awake.
Sometimes he even jumped up, still fast asleep, which was annoying but also potentially deadly. If he would stray, he could hit his head or fall into the water. So every night Coach Ek held him and slept lightly, wary of the fact that his youngest player might have dreamed himself dead.
All 12 players, depicted from the top left clockwise, Adul Sam-on, 14, Panumas Saengdee, 13, Sompong Jaiwong, 13, Ekkarat Wongsookchan, 14, Pipat Bodhi, 15, Peerapat Sompiangjai, 16, Pornchai Kamluang, 16, Prajak Sutham, 14, Chanin Wiboonrungrueng, 11, Mongkol Boonpiam, 14, Nattawut & # 39; Tle & # 39; Takamsai, 14 and Duangpetch Promthep, 13
They still had working torches, but they rationed the light, knowing that it could take many more days before they were found. Usually they were so deep in a darkness that it felt like a physical substance that seeped around their bodies. It began to creep into the boys' subconscious. One night Dom dreamed that he was being chased by a black tiger. Another time, Titan thought that coach Ek was a warrior who was chasing him with a sword.
The border between sleep and waking was often unclear in that darkness and the more frightening.
As the days progressed, all boys had moments of despair and shed a few tears. But Note cried more than the others. He just did not think they would come out alive. On July 1 it was his 15th birthday but there was not much to celebrate. They lived, but for how much longer?
After nine days they walked closer to death, their bodies fading, their cheeks hollow, their skin gray. Without converting food into energy, the normal chemical processes of their bodies slowed and then shifted, looking for food elsewhere. The protein in their muscles was broken down into glucose, their fat converted into fatty acids and ketone. To fuel the life-giving fundamentals, their bodies used them from the inside.
The heart must continue to pump blood. The brain must keep thinking. They must remain calm, maintain their energy. They must survive.
Because the rescuers outside, Sunday 1 July, brought a lucky holiday. The weather was decreasing. There had been no heavy rain in the last 36 hours. That afternoon, yellow measuring sticks at various points in the cave showed that the water level was dropping.
While the cave was still under water, but the current became better manageable, foreign diving instructors based in Thailand offered to go back inside to lay hundreds of meters of guiding ropes through the flooded passages, and to bind them to stalactites and rocks. while they are back to the T-junction.
Thousands of rescuers including Thai Navy SEALs and elite British divers worked around the clock to come up with a plan to bring the exhausted and starving boys home safely.
Experienced British divers John Volanthen and Rick Stanton joined them. Visibility was still bad and they blinded diving. When they collided with each object in the water, they half expected it to be a body. They were constantly tying themselves for the worst.
But they made progress and eventually fought their way through the cave to the T-junction. Finally there was real hope.
But for the parents outside the mood had become grim again. Ten days were over now. It was too long. They were all miserable and exhausted, stuck in a heartbreaking place somewhere between doubt and sorrow.
A doctor calculated that, after ten days without food, the chance that a child would survive dropped to 10 percent. Even the optimists in charge of the operation wondered if it was time to switch from a rescue strategy to a recovery strategy. That would be another dynamic. A rescue operation included shifting the limits of safety and putting lives in line for someone else. The retrieval of bodies would be a slower effort, performed with care in order not to lose more lives.
On the other hand, the boys and the coach can still be alive. They would give it another day. This was still a rescue attempt. Just.
That night it rained again, but the pumps that were installed in the cave did their job. The water did not rise. The levels were finally under control. The divers pushed further into the cave. The exact location of the wild boar was still a gamble.
On the way, however, there were scattered clues such as muddy handprints on the cave wall that indicated that they had turned left at the T-junction and were probably somewhere near a cave known as Pattaya Beach.
But in what state would they be? Would they even live?
The mission to rescue the last four boys and their football coach caught in a flooded cave that can be seen here in a photo posted on Twitter by American billionaire Elon Musk
John Volanthen and Rick Stanton now started from the T-junction and laid guidance cables as they went, until they came to a diamond-shaped bottleneck. They swam through it and clamp their fingers into the sludge to crawl against the current.
They reached a large sandy slope and came to the air. They had reached Pattaya Beach – the room where everyone expected the boys to be entrenched.
But the ledge was empty. Nobody was there.
After they had already used a third of their air supply, they would have to return according to rights, but they made a well-considered decision to dig in their reserves of air and continue. Over time, they were determined to go that day as humanly as possible.
The boys were ten days without food. The idea of not just stopping was absurd, John thought. The two divers insisted with a sense of determination, but also with fear. I absolutely expected that bodies in the water would float to me, & # 39; said John.
When they entered each new pit, they had little idea what to expect. Would it be an ordinary lake or a long, flooded room? Would it be blocked with rocks, stalactites, debris or corpses?
Navigation was difficult in the dark passages and they made slow progress at 350 meters until they came into a room with room size and came to the surface. There was nothing on the steep muddy bank so they dived again and went on.
On the next ledge, 11-year-old Titan, the youngest of the wild boar, was fading, his small body disappeared. "I felt weak, I had no energy and I was hungry", he recalled. He thought about homemade food.
Food fantasies constantly played the boys' thoughts. It was about 245 hours since one of them had eaten. Their faces were emaciated, their cheekbones protruded.
Their decay was not only physical. When another day was over, their minds also faded.
& # 39; We lost patience, hope, physical energy and courage. We could not do anything to help. The only thing I could do was pray, "said Adul, the only Christian of the group.
The 11th boy to be saved was reportedly the 11-year-old Chanin Wiboonrungruang (second left), whose nickname is Titan
For the captain of the team, Dom, would be his 14th birthday tomorrow. He gathered the boys and encouraged them to keep digging to break through the back wall and find a way out of the cave. He did not know, but his birthday present would come almost early.
Around eight o'clock the boys and coach Ek were on the ledge, digging a bit, resting others. & # 39; At that moment I heard people talking, & # 39; said Adul.
They all frozen in the darkness, exerted themselves to hear and feared that their minds were interfering with them. Adul grabbed a torch and went off the slope as quickly as his weak body would carry him.
When he reached the edge, his legs went away from under him and he slipped into the water. He clambered back on the ledge, looked back at the water and, to his surprise, saw two men sitting in diving gear.
& # 39; It was a wonder moment, he remembered. I realized that they were British and that's why I said hello. & # 39;
In this phase the rest of the team had crawled to the edge.
From the water Rick Stanton counted them when they came down. As he scanned his torch across their faces, he saw that they were all there. & Thank you. Thank you. Thanks, & # 39; the guys reacted to him.
Adul and Biw, the only two English speakers, translated for the others. Adul asked: & # 39; When do we go outside? & # 39; and John had to explain that it would not be today. But many people would come to save them, he promised. & # 39; We are the first. & # 39;
The British divers dragged themselves to the other shore, but to begin with, they remained separated from the boys by a channel of water.
It was a conscious precaution. They had no idea in which state of mind the boys and coach Ek would be. They feared that, starving and desperate, they would try to hurry them and take their diving equipment to escape. But after a few minutes they soon realized that the 13 were calm and no threat.
For the next 40 minutes, John and Rick were sitting on the ledge with wild boars. To raise the spirits of the children, they asked them to cheer for the camera – a cheer for Thailand, an applause for America, another for the United Kingdom, and that went on.
The physical condition of the boys was remarkably good. They were emaciated but not injured and did not seem sick. They even managed to smile, but when they saw their teeth their faces seemed too big in their pinched faces,
& # 39; We are hungry & # 39 ;, a boy begged. We must eat, eat, eat! & # 39; The divers had not brought food, but promised that they would send in the SEALs as soon as possible.
They dropped back into the water, said goodbye, and walked back through the sink.
Carried by the current, their journey back was quicker and a little less heavy than it had gone.
Thailand erupts in celebrations, because imprisoned soccer team is freed from the cave and the rescue commander praises the successful mission
The news that the boys were found alive was sent out for them and reached the world before they even reached the entrance of the cave. All around there were cheers and tears of joy. It seemed that the impossible had come true.
The priority now was to return to them as soon as possible with food and medical supplies. The Thai took control and an army doctor, Dr Pak, and three SEALs went into the cave.
It was a difficult journey for them, who still had to fight against the current. They were not trained cave divers, the water was cold and the dive took a long time. They suffered from cramps and were forced to rest before they finally reached the edge. There they assured the boys that they would stay with them for as long as needed – even if that meant waiting for half a year until the cave was empty.
Dr Pak went to work and got some energy and nutrients in the boys' systems without overloading them. Their small bodies were in life support mode, slowly reducing fat and muscle to deliver a ray of energy, enough to pump the heart and expand the lungs.
Many of the chemical processes in the body were stopped, changed or reversed.
They ran the risk of what doctors call reforestation syndrome – the point of hunger where too much food could kill them too quickly.
A sudden flow of glucose would overload the system and change their phosphate, potassium and magnesium levels into chaos. The result could be delirium, seizures, respiratory failure, heart failure, coma or even death.
Although the boys were hungry and longed for rich pork and fast food, they had to be patient. The rescuers had brought small squeeze bags with energetic gels. These small shots of life should for the time being be sufficient, and gradually bring their bodies back from the edge.
In general, their condition was surprisingly good. The doctor examined them and found no serious injuries. They needed medical care, but not urgently.
He applied an antiseptic solution to the scratches of the boys. & # 39; This will kill the infection, & # 39; he said to a boy as he spread his foot.
& # 39; Once you are outside, we think you are a beautiful nurse.
In the outside world, the joy of keeping the team alive was the biggest news story on earth.
Jose Mourinho from Manchester United met members of the Wild Boars football team from Thailand last October
Millions of people took part in the relief and celebrated their survival. But for those who are responsible for the removal of the boys and their football coach, the unmixed pleasure did not last long.
After the news had invaded, it was replaced by the realization how deep in the mountain the boys were and how difficult it would be to bring them back to the surface.
People were rescued from caves, but never had such a difficult set of problems for a rescue party – the ages of children; their malnourished state; the long, flooded road outside; the uncertainty of the weather.
In an ideal world, the teams would be able to suck enough water from the wells for the wild boar to blow in the way they walked in.
But this was not feasible – some of the passages were 15ft deep and more rain came.
The cautious solution was to wait. The boys and coach Ek had energy gels, medicines and companionship.
Maybe they would have to camp on that muddy bank for the next four to six months, until the rains stopped and the corridors were dry.
The most risky option was to dive them out.
The wild boars could all swim, but no one had ever dived. Even for a competent recreational diver, the way out was treacherous. It would be almost impossible for a non-diver.
All options were on the table and everything was bad.
- Adapted by Tony Rennell from The Cave by Liam Cochrane, published by ABC Books for £ 15.99. Copyright © Liam Cochrane 2019. To make a telephone call 0844 571 0640 or go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books.