Hail the heroes

national December 29, 2018 01:00

By The Nation Weekend

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Thais witnessed 10,000 of them assembling in Chiang Rai in July to rescue our young Wild Boars footballers, trapped in a cave



MISSION IMPOSSIBLE – as we came to call the 18-day operation in July to rescue 12 young footballers and their coach trapped in a Chiang Rai cave – was perhaps most memorable for the help that poured in from all around the world.

It was the assistance from the international community that made the mission possible after all. Foreign attention began focusing on the plight of the Mu Pa (Wild Boars) Football Club members almost as soon as reports emerged on June 23 that they’d become trapped in the Tham Luang cave complex by flash floods.

With the danger waxing and waning daily and the outcome always in question, that attention gradually expanded to encompass the globe.

The intensive and highly dangerous search-and-rescue operation faced a series of formidable obstacles, including steady downpours that swelled the muddy floodwater in the cave, submerging whole sections of the narrow, jagged escape route, the thinning of the oxygen, the sheer darkness.

After nine days of worry, the lost 13 were found alive on July 2, on a dry perch five kilometres from the cave mouth. The desperate race to extricate them ahead of the gathering monsoon, which would bring further deluges, went on for another nine agonising days.

While the mission ultimately was a success, it was not accomplished without tragedy. Samarn Kunun, a former Thai Navy Seal known as “Sergeant Sam”, perished on July 6 while placing oxygen canisters along the rescue route for the divers who would bring the Wild Boars out.

He sacrificed his life to help save the boys and was duly honoured by the Kingdom and applauded by the world as a hero. In all, more than 10,000 people – Thais and foreigners – were involved in the operation, and The Nation wishes to pay tribute to them all as Persons of the Year for 2018 for their kindness and assistance.

First there was Sergeant Sam, who will never be forgotten, and then Narongsak Osottanakorn, who was governor of Chiang Rai at the time and played the crucial role of leading the mission right from Day 1.

Thailand’s deep gratitude goes to the expert cave divers, some of them among the world’s best in their field, who arrived from overseas to help.

Britons Richard Stanton and John Volanthen, probing ever deeper into the cave in search of the lost boys, were the ones who found them, to their own surprise and to the cheers of everyone tracking the effort on TV, online and in other media. Both vastly experienced in complex cave rescues, they gave the world reason to believe the risky mission still ahead would eventually succeed.

Dr Richard Harris, an Australian anaesthetist from Adelaide, donned air tanks to work a small miracle of his own. The evacuation route included submerged passages that narrowed to less than 40 centimetres.

The boys and their coach had strong swimmers all around to guide them along, and the journey was made easier by shots of anti-anxiety medication from Dr Harris, ensuring they wouldn’t panic during the ordeal and jeopardise their own safety.

The Mu Pa affair had after-effects that few people could have foreseen, not least a global outpouring of helpfulness. Reports came in from all corners of random acts of kindness inspired by the Thai drama.

Much more directly for the footballers, the three who had until then been stateless – born of foreign parents and thus denied Thai citizenship – were soon given that citizenship and all the benefits that accrue.

Ekkapol Chantawong, Phonchai Khamluang and Adul Sam-on inadvertently helped highlight a problem far too long overlooked – more than half a million people living in this country are officially stateless.

There was more to come for the rescued Wild Boars, who were now international celebrities, even if few foreigners knew them individually by name.

They were treated to a tour of the United States and attended the Youth Olympics in Argentina. With a slew of movies planned or in the making, their story will soon be retold onscreen, each one licensed so that they and their families will reap financial benefit.

There has lately been dispute over whether a Hollywood producer is proceeding without copyright, but Thai-Irish filmmaker Tom Waller has begun shooting his movie, “The Cave”, with a multinational cast.

Meanwhile sculptors and painters have been memorialising the rescue, with several prominent artists contributing pieces for a commemorative site at the mouth of the cave. And the cave itself, so little known before, is now a national landmark.

Tham Luang is being developed so that future explorations are safe. There were lessons learned. Thai rescue teams gained valuable experience in cave diving while working alongside world experts.

After some foreign news outlets were chastised for sensationalising the story, the local media came to appreciate the need to show sensitivity when reporting events involving imperilled youths.

At the same time, though, the domestic press wondered why it was barred from interviewing the individual footballers when foreign outlets had direct access. That debate is likely to continue. The Mu Pa story isn’t over yet.

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