Dwindling oxygen and looming rains prompted rescue mission

The dwindling amount of oxygen in Tham Luang cave coupled with looming monsoon rains were two crucial factors that forced the rescue teams to decide to extract the 12 members of the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach earlier than planned, rescue operation chief Narongsak Osotthanakorn said last night.

Speaking at a final press briefing before the rescue operation was wrapped up,  the ex-Chiang Rai governor recalled that at one point during the rescue operation, oxygen level in the chamber where the 13 survivors were sheltering was reduced to only 15 per cent.  “If the oxygen level dropped further than that, there were fears they would all black out,” he said.

Equally critical was the weather, he said. Looming monsoon rains threatened to cause the cave to be flooded again, putting the entire rescue mission in jeopardy.

Although almost one million cubic metres of water were pumped out of the cave, he said that about 20,000-30,000 cubic metres of water were flowing into the cave and if he decided to wait any longer, the extraction operation would become very difficult.

Narongsak attributed the success of the rescue operation to the blessings of His Majesty the King and good cooperation in the areas of technology, knowhow and equipment from a lot of people both inside and outside of Thailand.

He praised the efforts of the ground teams to search for cavities or shafts as alternative routes into the cave, but he said that drilling through a cavity or a shaft to get into the cave was not easy.   He cited the case in Chile where some miners were trapped in an underground mine and it took the rescuers about two months to drill through the wall to bring the miners out.

He  also asked for understanding from the media for his order to evict journalists from areas around the cave entrance and to restrict their access to Chiang Rai Prachanukroh hospital.  He said it was done out of concern for security for the rescue operation.

Addressing the same press conference, Navy SEAL commander Rear Admiral Arpakorn Yukongkaew agreed that drilling through cave wall to try to reach the survivors was next to impossible.

“We checked all the other options; we were racing against rains.  Drilling a mountain wall which is 500 metres thick is like finding a needle in  haystack,” he said.

Recalling how his rescue team responded to the situation,  he said the first SEAL team of 20 members were flown from Sattahip naval base to Chiang Rai at midnight shortly after receiving a request from Governor Narongsak.  The team arrived in Chiang Rai at 2 am and went into action two hours later.

Detailing the SEAL team’s operation, he said the first team managed to arrive at the T junction and found out that a flooded passageway was blocked by sand, but it managed to get through to the so-called Pattaya Beach where they found the footprints of the boys.

The cave was very dark and it was raining hard, forcing the team to retreat back to T junction, then to Chamber 3, he recalled.

The SEAL team finally had to retreat from Chamber 3 to the cave entrance because of the rising water.  Two more SEAL teams were despatched to the cave from Sattahip, but they were beaten back by the tide in the cave.

“At the time our hope was dimmed as we tried to figure out how to get into the cave.  It was then the 7th and 8th day (since the boys were trapped).  We didn’t know how they were,” he said.

Help then poured in from both private and government sectors with water pumps being installed to drain water out of the cave, with more oxygen tanks and arrival of more divers from different countries until the 13 were found on Nern Nom Sao mound, about 400 metres from Pattaya Beach, on the 10th day.