Rescue teams were faced with tough choices and time running out.
DRUGS WERE employed to prevent panic among the 13 Mu Pa (Wild Boars) footballers as they were evacuated from Tham Luang cave by rescue teams made up of Thai and foreign divers.
The Navy first hinted at the use of a calming agent, but did not get into specifics.
“The Wild Boars put on diving suits and full-face masks,” said Thai Navy SEAL chief Apakorn Youkongkaew during a televised press conference earlier this week. “They were connected with air tanks and escorted by (experienced) divers. We opted for an evacuation process that prevented Wild Boars from panicking as they moved through the cave.”
Some foreign media outlets have reported that ketamine or another sedative was given to the youth before embarking on the perilous journey out of the cave where they had been stranded for more than two weeks.
“Some were conscious but some others were asleep. They kept breathing as evacuations went on. They were wrapped with foil blankets to keep them warm,” Apakorn said.
UK paper the Daily Mail quoted one of the British divers as saying, “I was told the boys were given a dose of ketamine (a horse tranquilliser often used as a recreational drug) to keep them calm.” An American military diver reportedly added: “Those kids were proper knocked out.”
Fernando Raigal, a Spanish diver who took part in the rescue, told the Daily Mail, ‘The boys were sedated – they were unconscious.”
But Prime Prayut Chan-o-cha denied this, saying, “All of the children were conscious during the operation.”
In a Skype conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, Dr Richard Harris, who made the final decision to take the children out of the cave last week, explained how difficult it was to take the boys out.
“You are basically, the entire dive from 2.5 kilometres or so at the back of the cave. There’s zero visibility on the way out from the mud and the clay. So you are following the line with your hand and basically might as well have your eyes closed for the whole trip. With a small boy being cradled in your arms, and feeling your way through rocks … and passing yourself sideways though little holes and things.”
Located in Chiang Rai’s Mae Sai district, the Tham Luang cave system turns extremely dangerous during the wet season. The cave is usually inundated between July and November, making its compound out of bounds during the period. But flash floods came early this year. It was only June 23 when the 12 footballers and their assistant football coach visited the cave and became suddenly stranded inside due to flash floods.
Darkness, floodwater, thin air, narrow choke points, jagged rocks and slippery and rough passages inside the cave proved formidable as the rescuers worked against the clock to save the stranded survivors before the rainy season unleashed its full wrath. Even with powerful pumps to drain water out of the cave and successful efforts to divert rainwater from heading into the cave, there were always risks that if major rainfall came, no one would be able to overcome nature’s power.
“This mission was extremely difficult. It was absolutely difficult. We faced something we had never faced,” Apakorn said one day after the evacuations concluded.
The stranded football team was found at a spot known as Noen Nom Sao. It is about 25 square metres wide and was dry. But evacuating the Wild Boars through the cave’s only known entrance required both trekking and diving, with some sections of the route completely submerged from floor to ceiling.
It sounded impossible to many observers for young footballers, without previous diving skills, to make it out – even with professional escorts.
Apakorn described the diving components as requiring two highly-skilled divers accompanying each Wild Boar.
Discussing a posted video clip showing an evacuee on a stretcher, Apakorn said that rescue planners were worried that the trapped survivors would become exhausted if they tried to walk out on their own.
At a press conference, Apakorn admitted that he did not yet know how the stranded footballers had managed to remain inside their cave before British divers found them.
“We may have to ask for details from them later on. That part is also interesting,” he said.