If there was any uncertainty about what drove the decision to move ahead with the extraction of 13 young men from flooded Luang Cave on Sunday, it was put to rest by provincial governor Narongsak Osotthanakorn this evening, who described a ticking clock scenario driven by dropping oxygen levels and fears of rain.
Speaking at a marathon press conference that saw no fewer than six Thai officials take turns describing their teams’ roles in the undertaking, Narongsak said the elements had left rescuers with few options.
” [I was told] the oxygen level in the cave reached 15 percent … [and] if it went down to 12, they would have gone into a shock.”
“That forced us to work even faster,” he said.
Predicted rain was the other key factor, Narongsak said, with no guarantee that the elevated area the children had found refuge on would remain safe — a fact that seemingly eliminated the option of simply waiting for the waters to recede.
“The water was coming … the rain was coming. If the cave was fully flooded, the ledge the children were on would be even smaller. That’s why he had to work fast.”
“When we announced it was D-Day, the water in chambers 1-3 was low. We had to decide whether to proceed or not,” the governor said, emphasizing the key role that draining “about 1 million cubic meters of water” played in the effort.
“Low” water, of course, was a relative term in the deep of the cave, one that meant the children would still be submerged for about 40% of the journey, according to Thai Seal commander Apakorn Yookongkaew.
Apakorn said that each child had been assisted by two expert divers, meaning they were not physically forced to swim the entire way.
Questions as to whether or not the children had been sedated were brushed aside, though an AFP story earlier today quoted a former Navy SEAL source confirming it as fact.
WORKING IN THE DARK
Other SEALs who spoke this evening described both their initial shock at the conditions they encountered as well as incredibly long periods some teams were forced to go without communication.
“The cave must have some lights for us to work,” a SEAL commander, Capt. Anan Surawan, said. “When I listened to the briefing, I thought the mission shouldn’t be difficult, but when we walked in, it was completely dark.”
“When we worked, we didn’t know what day or what time it was, because it was always dark,” he continued. “We just counted the hours.”
The initial two teams to make it deep into the cave were out of communication with their commanders for nearly a full day, he added.
“Can you believe that the two teams we sent in to look after the children — they were out of communication for 23 hours. Can you imagine the stress?
“23 hours later, they came back.”
In what would be a harbinger of Friday’s tragic death of former Navy SEAL Samarn Kunan, maintaining oxygen during the long hours under the murky surface was determined to be a concern early on.
“Three members came back because they didn’t have enough oxygen. Those three SEAL members were then sent to hospital — they were exhausted,” Capt. Anan said.
Samarn was with a group of largely foreign divers when he went on his mission to place oxygen tanks along the exit route, according to Capt. Anan.
“All of the foreigners placed their oxygen tanks and came back — it took them 3 hours. Five hours … six hours … seven hours later, Samarn and [his dive partner] didn’t return.”
“At 1am, his buddy came back alone and informed us of the bad news.”
That news led first to depression, that quickly turned into motivation, insisted Narongsak.
FREE BUT STATELESS?
The 12 young soccer players rescued this week have much in common, not least the traumatic experience of the past 18 days. But, according to several news reports, citizenship is one bond at least some of them don’t share.
In an interview with AFP this week, Nopparat Khanthavong, founder of the Wild Boars youth soccer team, said at least four of their group — including coach Ek and three of the young team members — could be classified as stateless.
Nopparat told Siam Sport that they couldn’t send the kids to compete in national league tournaments because of their lack of citizenship.
Whether or not their newfound celebrity will lead to a remedy to that status is unclear, and statements by the governor this evening only added to the confusion surrounding a situation that has yet to be publicly discussed by officials and has received scant attention in local press.
Speaking early in the press conference, Narongsak said he believed the boys will “grow up to be great citizens of Thailand,” adding that their medical care had been covered under the country’s social security scheme.
But when asked during a brief Q&A to clarify whether or not every team member had, or would be, granted citizenship, he refused to clarify his earlier comment, saying only that everything would be done “according to the law.”
Citizens or no, all 12 boys and their young coach can expect the limelight to remain on them for some time.
Revealing video of their first encounter with family members — one conducted through glass for fear of possible infection — Chiang Rai Prachanukroh Hospital director Chaiwetch Thanapaisal praised the boys’ strength, but said they would still likely “stay in the hospital 7-10 days.”
It’s likely though that the Thai public, and the world, will meet them before they’re even discharged.
“Within one week, the doctors may allow them to go outside and live their normal lives,” Narongsak said.
“And we may bring them to meet the press. It depends.”