The rescue of twelve boys and their football coach from deep within a flooded cave in Thailand provided welcome relief from the usual run of distressing news. On this occasion almost everything went right. The one exception was the death of a courageous Thai soldier who ran out of oxygen while distributing air tanks along the submerged rescue route. The remainder of the story ran as an unfolding series of near-miraculous achievements.
For a while the boys were merely lost their nearby cycles providing mute evidence of the fact. No one knew where they were or even if they were still alive. Everything that happened from that point on could easily have gone the other way. A multiple tragedy was always the most likely outcome. The first miracle occurred when two British divers penetrated deep into the flooded cave system and found the boys on a slanting muddy platform a long way from the entrance. Joy at the discovery, however, soon turned to anxiety. How could a dozen inexperienced youngsters make it back out through these dangerously flooded caverns, past deep sumps and restricted spaces that were challenging even for the experts?
The international news media were soon camped right at the site and eagerly reported every scrap of information. But the real ‘action’ remained hidden. The crux of the whole operation was the way that the Thai authorities and teams of divers from around the world came together and worked as a skilful and efficient team. The full story is yet to be written. What is clear, however, is that this level of cooperation occurred under extreme conditions. Since the Monsoon rains had already started time pressures were intense and always going to raise the stakes.
While pumps were installed to reduce the water levels in parts of the system, divers distributed air tanks, supplies and hope to the boys. An Australian doctor from Adelaide monitored their condition and three Thai Navy Seals made the courageous decision to stay with them. With further heavy rain expected it was decided that the boys would be extracted at the earliest possible time. At this point it was unclear to outsiders how this might be achieved. But it was later revealed that the divers had been practicing their technique in nearby pools. It turned out that the boys were carefully sedated, fitted with a facemask and connected to an air supply. Each was carefully placed in a light ‘package’ with an experienced diver in front and behind. This difficult and very dangerous procedure was repeated thirteen times, in groups of four, four and five. Somehow the divers managed to manoeuvre each child (plus coach) through the dark underwater environment without a hitch. As each group emerged those nearby shook their heads in stunned amazement. Onlookers sighed in relief and many of the boys’ parents shed tears of joy. When the last ones, including doctor and Seals emerged, the news broke and a heartfelt wave of euphoria swept around the world.
Some have suggested that the rescue of the Thai football team is already yesterday’s news and so will quickly fade and be forgotten. But I disagree. I like to think that this event is perhaps no less significant than others that ripple through the years and, for good or ill, become part of the shared human story. Within the US, for example, September 11, 2001, will always be remembered as a day of infamy when a determined and merciless foe not only levelled two iconic buildings killing many innocent people in the process, but also punctured for ever the notion of that country as either innocent or untouchable. If that terrible event reminds us of the costs of hegemony, the ultimate futility of vast military power, the penalties of weak political decisions, why should a different truth not be found here in this coming together of members of the very same species to value and preserve life? Is it so hard to believe that beneath all exterior differences we are simply one vast and diverse family? That everyone in that family matters? That one life is as valuable and as unique as any other?
For a brief time Thailand as a nation became something much more than an exotic holiday destination. As the world watched and waited only the heartless could fail to respond to the determination of the rescuers, the deeply felt and shifting emotions of the parents. They could have been, and for a moment perhaps were, any and all of us. As for the youngsters themselves, and those who supported them though those literally dark and dangerous days, how did they get through it if not by drawing on their own sources of compassion and fortitude and those that that permeate Thai culture? Seldom have Buddhist practices seemed more helpful and life sustaining. Where else might a football coach be capable of helping his charges practice the mindfulness needed to endure such appalling conditions? Finally we should recognise the way that the boys apologised to their parents for having deceived them about their plans for that afternoon. Here, as in other aspects of the case, we seen how an underlying respect for all involved prepared the space for reconciliation and healing.
This is not to suggest that Thailand lacks the usual faults and failings common to our species. But on this occasion the country, the people, the international team of divers and helpers all came together to achieve something extraordinary. So the story is worthy of being remembered and emulated. It provides a reference point and a reminder that humanity can indeed act together for the common good. There are many people around the world who are also lost in the darkness of despair and privation. They need us to remember this and to act accordingly.