Over the 12 days of Christmas, HuffPost UK is hosting a series of blogs from people at the centre of 2018′s biggest news stories. Today, caving expert Vernon Unsworth writes on his role in one the most tense, uplifting stories of the year, the Tham Luang cave rescue. To find out more about the series, follow our hashtag #HuffPost12Days
In June this year, a good friend of mine, and fellow caver, Rob Harper, spent a month in Thailand, where I live. We caved on many of his days here, including trips to Pua in Nan Province and a cave called Tham Luang - little did he know we would soon be back.
I’m not a cave diver as such, I’m what you would call a caving expert, having been in the ‘sport’ since I was sixteen. I have always enjoyed the exploration of caves, and of finding new passages that no one has ventured into before.
When Rob had left each other on Wednesday 20 June in Phayao province, between us we agreed it would be a good idea for me to do a solo exploration trip into Tham Luang later that month. All my caving gear and lights were already prepared but unfortunately a border run to extend my visa meant I had to delay my start – otherwise it’s likely I would have gone into Tham Luang on the very same day as a group of 13 boys and their football coach I would soon need to help rescue. Spooky or what.
Come early Sunday morning, my partner Tik began receiving calls from a number of people telling her there was a situation in Tham Luang – and that they needed my help, urgently. Little did I know what I was getting into.
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The first four days of the operation were, for me, especially difficult. On the first day at the cave alone, I had to make five trips in and out of the now famous Sam Yek junction, totalling roughly 20km of caving. I chose to make three of those trips on my own, simply because I could travel quicker by myself, and people on the outside needed updating with what was happening – at that point, there were no communications inside the cave.
I wasn’t at all aware of what was going on in the real world outside of Tham Luang, although I learned later of other disasters that happened… including England losing to Croatia in the World Cup semi-final. My focus was always 100% on the rescue of the boys. With very little sleep for the 17 days I was there I survived on coffee, Coca Cola, more coffee, cake, biscuits and chocolate, and still ended up losing 5kg in weight.
Where I had help and support inside and outside the cave, it came mainly from locals including many who would become friends: Taw, Lak, Ae and Noi plus a Thai Navy Seal captain called Wuttichai, who seemed to catch on very quickly to the bigger problem we were facing.
Throughout the early days of the rescue operation I was fighting the Thai authorities, which led me to a confrontation with the Chiang Rai province governor Narongsak Osatanakorn. I said to him twice, very firmly, that “you have one chance” at this rescue. He walked away, and it was later in the evening that I was called into the meeting with Thai ministers who trusted my advices, Osatanakorn stayed quiet, he knew any decisions would not be his to make. Needless to say, I don’t think I’ll be on the governor’s Christmas card list this year.
The day after that confrontation, Rob, along with divers John Vonlanthen and Rick Stanton, arrived late in the evening. With them joining the operation my role changed, but I remained very active with what was happening. I made trips to the top of the mountain to try to find another way into the cave system – which I knew would not happen but decided to do in order to satisfy others who would try anything to help, rather than say ‘no, you will just be wasting your time and energy’. I wanted them to feel good about what they wanted to try and do. Elsewhere, I was asked for my opinions on the water conditions inside the cave, and John and Rick specifically called upon me to try and explain to them exactly what they would encounter along the way to the group. Even though my role changed, let’s just say that the pressure never went away – I felt like if this went badly wrong then I would be the person that people would point fingers at.
When John and Rick found the coach and children alive and well on 2 July, all I can say is it felt amazing. Everyone, the parents and the Thai officials and, I suppose, people worldwide were deliriously happy – however at the cave pressure was immediately put on our already heavy shoulders as we realised, quite simply: ‘shit, how do we get them out?’. Understandably at the time, people really didn’t take in the enormity of the task ahead.
To safely bring home 13 out of 13 was, to be honest, the miracle of all miracles, but as far as I’m concerned, I’m certainly don’t see myself as a hero. When 13 people’s lives are at stake, 12 of them children between the ages of eight and 13, I hope most people would have done the same as me. As for the divers who rescued the children, they also wouldn’t recognise themselves as heroes. We were all happy to help and apply our vast experience, skills and technology into achieving a positive outcome, even when the odds were stacked against us. A rescue of this nature had never been undertaken before and throughout the operation there were deep concerns that lives would be lost.
I’m not a person who believes in the ‘spiritual’ side of life, however there is a story about Nang Non Mountain and the Princess of the Mountain, through which Tham Luang Cave runs. Things did happen which – when I look back – seemed to indicate that the Princess was somehow looking after the boys. In return, she took the life of the brave hero Saman Gunan. Mother nature for four or five days was certainly on our side, providing us with very little rain. On the last day of the rescue, after the five remaining boys were all safely out and the four Thai Navy Seals safe too, suddenly floods of water poured through again. Coincidence or not? The coach and the boys were very lucky to be alive, but I’m a believer that when your time is up and your number is called, it’s time. For the thirteen in the cave, on this occasion the number 13 had not been called up, and they survived.
Without a doubt, I think there’s a lot people can learn from what happened over those weeks. People from around the world with different beliefs and different cultures, working together with trust and respect. We grew into a strong team, we never gave up, even though, personally, I felt the world was certain this was going to end badly. Thailand can be proud of their Navy Seals, the heroic Saman Gunan who lost his life, and Thailand as a nation can be proud of what was an amazing achievement against all odds. Returning to Thailand in September for the United as One ceremony, reuniting with the many people from around the world who were part of the operation, most of whom are now good friends, was a night to remember. Since then, life certainly hasn’t returned to what I would call normal, with the exception of demands from the media and people generally wanting to know more about the incredible outcome.
Looking into 2019, above all I just wish the hate in the world would stop. Climate change is high on my list of concerns about the world we live in, as is the plastic waste in our oceans. It’s all much more important than Brexit which, I believe, Theresa May is doing a fantastic job on. At least she has stuck to the task, unlike some MPs who are doing nothing more than throwing their toys out of the pram. I believe they are ashamed, and only hope they can face themselves as they look into the bathroom mirror each morning.