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Mountain Planet

5 years, Australia

2 months ago

Thai Cave Rescue: Elon Musk was Wrong

In June and July, the Thailand cave rescue operation captured the world’s attention. 12 young boys and their coach got trapped in a flooded Tham Luang cave and went missing for almost 10 days. There is not a man alive, who would doubt the courage of the 25 years old soccer coach (Ekkapol «Ake» Chantawong) who took all the actions possible to save his team.

The kids entered the cave on the 23rd of June, but they were only able to get out of it on the 10th of July. So a lot of questions are rising. Why did the rescue operation take so long? What are the distinctive features of cave rescue missions? And how to prevent such incidents from happening? Pavel Demidov, the head of the expedition, which reached a record-holding depth of 2212 meters in the Veryovkina Cave in Russia, is here to answer these questions. It should also be mentioned that the Veryovkina Cave is the deepest-known cave on Earth, which is located in the Arabika Massif of the Gagra Range in Abkhazia.

Pavel Demidov, world record holder

The situation with kids, who got trapped in a cave in Thailand, was developing the same way as it does in such circumstances. It all began with a small mistake. The kids took a day trip into a cave which is a popular tourist destination, so it’s has even electric lighting, and it has specially designated areas for excursions.

There are also warning signs in the Tham Luang cave notifying that it’s not advisable to visit it during the monsoon season, which lasts from July till February. After the disaster with the soccer team, the authorities decided to close this part of the national parks for the tourists during the above mentioned period.

What happened? It seems that the Wild Boars team and their coach entered the cave when it was drizzling outside and that they apparently ignored the information on the warning signs. But the quantity of water which was coming in suggests that the ground had already been wet. That’s obvious as for a flash flood to form the ground, and everything around it should get wet, and when it’s wet enough the water will start coming into the cave. The soil works like a sponge. First, you should soak it and then the water will come from «the other end».

Obviously, the weather outside was right, that’s why the Wild Boars decided that the warning signs were of no importance. Such behavior should not come as a surprise, carelessness exists in every country and in every society.

Having neglected the warning signs, the team went into the cave. It seems that the water began to rise when they had already been a few kilometers deep inside it. When you are inside, it’s difficult to measure the distance as even by turning the corner you can lose the sense of direction. The noisy stream didn’t frighten the team. «Yes there’s a stream here, but so what? It has probably been here for some time». That’s why the guys were not aware that the water was rising, but on the return journey, they realized that the water had cut off their exit route.

A river cave is a river with a tunnel above it, and like all rivers, it flows downwards. So the lower the area where the river runs, the sooner the water goes up.

The kids realized that they had to find a high point, and then the people who were studying the topographic survey of the Tham Luang rightly suggested that the missing soccer team could have been in the place called «Pattaya Beach» with a local pond in a big chamber. Finally, the Wild Boars were found quite near it in a ponded chamber.

Stretcher operational rescue tests in Russian cave

Why did the rescue take so long? Because it’s complicated. Firstly, there are a lot of passages in the cave, and all of them had to be examined. Secondly, to get to the boys, one needs to dive through a series of siphons (traprocks), passages in the cave that are submerged underwater. It’s a very tough job, especially in such severe conditions with utterly murky water, as rising waters kick up sand, mud, etc. And it’s all flowing very fast through the tunnel, and even professional underwater light equipment do not help. Just to dive through a siphon and to anchor guiding ropes (fixed ropes that are used to move underwater) require a lot of effort (for example, to hammer in a bolt or a hook).

Thank goodness that a lot of skilled cave-divers permanently live in this region, because of that they were able to come to the rescue. They really helped in the first stage of the rescue mission. They laid out guiding ropes, communications, and air tanks. Cave-divers are the real elite sportsmen, who knew the local conditions, and who had already dived in the local caves as well as in a lot of caves all around the world (they are the real pros.) Thai navy divers also helped.

This rescue operation resembles a speleological expedition: first, you dive through the siphon and secure the rope and the communications, and then you take the new air tanks because you will need them for the next traprock. If I am not mistaken, around 500 air tanks were used in the cave rescue, and that’s a lot.

To my mind, the death of one of the rescuers can be explained by the medium of psychology. Why have a healthy 38 years old retired navy SEAL died? The mind of a rescuer works like this: the central principle is to survive because when you are dead, you cannot help others. The mind of a soldier works another way around: no matter what the cost you need to achieve the aim.

It’s a well-known fact that speleologist-divers have a so-called «two-thirds» rule: one-third of the air you use to go there and two-thirds to go back. I don’t know for sure, but it seems that deceased SEAL Samarn Kunan decided to risk it because he thought that going with the flow on the way back, he would need less air…

The painting in the memory of Thai Cave Disaster in Chiang Rai

All these reasons explain why it took so long to rescue the kids. First, they had to make a rescue base after the first siphon, then after the second, and so on and so forth.

At the same time, the Thai authorities were trying hard to pump the water from the cave. They used a full range of tools which could pump 50,000 tons of water per hour. Just try to imagine how many gas tank trucks (one can hold 20 tones) would have been necessary to transport a day worth of pumped water. I did the sums – 30,000 gas tank trucks. Technically it was a super complex challenge.

Working process in a "dry" cave

The kids were locked inside with an insufficient amount of food. The water that was surrounding them was unsafe to drink. In given circumstances, it was much safer to drink from some drippings. In caves there are other sources of water beside the one that’s on the ground. For example, there is a supply of fresh water in the form of moisture dripping from the cave walls as well as in the form of condensate water. These kinds of supplies are relatively clean.

When we were working in approximately the same conditions in the caves of China (tropical karst), our English colleges were entirely against drinking water from any underground sources. They only used bottled water. That’s very reasonable, mainly when the cave is located in an agricultural region, in which there is a lot of livestock and fertilizers are commonly used. So when underground it’s better not to drink the water. Moreover, tropical forest swarms with so many different creatures whose waste products easily contaminate warm flash water.

Either, the kids were lucky that they were locked up in a warm cave, where the constant temperature is over +20ºC. In every «northern» cave the cold constitutes the main danger, it can kill you in a matter of a few hours. For example, the average temperatures in the alpine (high altitude) karst in our climes range from +5ºC to +8ºC.

The water in Thailand was also warm, so the rescuers did not need any special clothing, some of them didn’t even use diving suits. But there was another risk, in tropical regions even a small wound takes plenty of time to heal and there is always a risk of infection. That’s why when coming out of water cleansing the small cuts is the first thing that every diver did. This can be seen in the video footages from the sight.

As for the rescue itself, the first idea that popped into my head was to use special underwater stretchers (and rescuers in Thailand did use the stretchers in the end. – M. P.). Russian speleologists were ready to help and to come to Thailand through Rossoyuzspas (Rescuers of Russia Union) channels, an organization with which they cooperate in cave rescue operations. But the King of Thailand decided that the situation would be dealt by only local professionals. Even highly experienced French divers were turned down.

So all the people that took part in the rescue were either locals or those with regulatory certifications and work permits.

What they have done? They used underwater stretchers, on which kids in dry bags and with full-face masks on have been transported. The stretchers have been put halfway into the water with an air tank being pulled following the cave profile. This is a proven method that has been used many times in siphons. So Elon Musk’s rescue submarine is nothing more than “reinventing the wheel”.

One of the main reasons why the kids survived is the fact that they hadn’t lost the courage and self-control during these long and arduous days. Their 25 years old teacher who grew up in a Buddhist monastery was able to motivate them. While in the cave he ate the least to help the kids.

From my personal experience, I can suggest one method that can help you to deal with panic. Just speak to the person. When something wrong happens, you need to support the one in need, to make sure that the person doesn’t black out and to look after him. It’s important to concentrate on a simple, straightforward idea, to organize your life, to make yourself comfortable and to preserve the food. The rescued kids did all of that. You also need to sleep a lot, that will help you save the energy and if you want to talk, choose an abstract topic so you won’t fixate on gloomy thoughts.

How else could the Russian speleologists have helped? We could have tried to find upper entrances to the cave because it’s quite possible that they exist. In general, caves in Asia are explored from the bottom. It’s pretty obvious as the entrances are really wide and easy to access. But to climb up from within is not so obvious, even though speleologists-mountaineers do exist. At the same time, we are used to descending from the surface to a cave and then to go deep inside it.

What’s in the end? The crucial thing is that we have to draw the right conclusions from the tragedy. When someone drowns in the sea, the authorities don’t need to restrict access to the beach, they just need to teach others how to swim.

If the Tham Luang cave were more explored, if it were fully mapped, if there were experienced local “land” speleologists who were interested in it, they could have found the upper and additional entrances. This way the kids would have been rescued much faster and with lower costs.

The key point, the authorities have to realize, is that banning speleology because it “kills people” is not an answer because humans tend to die from so many different causes. If only the Thailand speleology were far more advanced, than the whole rescue mission would have been much more successful. Unfortunately, people from all over the world die in caves, and in many cases, their stories don’t have a happy ending.

***

Mountain Planet is the world’s fastest growing online Alpine Community for outdoor enthusiasts and innovative brands. MountainPlanet.com is the ultimate information destination for everything outdoors and alpine. Our goal is to make mountains safer and more accessible to the people who love them all around the world.

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