Thai football team rescue was ‘a story about top quality human beings’

A story which gripped the world had a positive ending. Credit: AP

This may have been a foreign story, but it hit home globally because it could have happened anywhere in the world – so the world was fascinated.

One of the most heartwarming things about covering it was that it was a story about top quality human beings – those boys were worth saving and their rescuers, well, heroes to a man (sorry, but they were all men).

No-one ever gave up. For ten days the boys couldn’t be found and yet divers, including Brits Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, pressed on deeper into the mountain in search of the Wild Boar football team.

The elite British pair were laying guide ropes when they surfaced in that air pocket to find 13 surprised faces staring back at them. The composure of those boys was remarkable. Their questions were logical, their answers polite. No hysteria, just calm understanding that an outside world they must have wondered if they would ever see again had found them and would do everything possible to get them out.

Then came the rescue… should they stay or should they go. Leaving them four months until the end of the raining season was tempting. At first it seemed like the safest option.

But then last Friday a new complexity was announced – low oxygen and high carbon dioxide levels in the air pocket. Leaving them until October wasn’t on.

The Thais pulled out all the stops. As engineers drained the cave from the entrance, Thai soldiers were on the mountainside diverting streams that fed water into the cave system through potholes. They hacked clearings in the jungle, so helicopters could winch down heavy equipment. The choppers couldn’t land because the mountainside was too steep.

Birds’ nest hunters were called in from southern Thailand. They make a living by harvesting swallows’ nests for birds’ nest soup.

Thai soldiers connected water pipes to help bypass water from entering the cave. Credit: AP

The swallows nest in limestone caves and openings. Using pulleys, ropes and trapezes the nest hunters had been asked to find new openings into the mountain in the hope one shaft would lead to the boys. Much better to have them climb out up top than swim out below.

By early Sunday morning the massive drainage effort had paid off. The water levels were down significantly. The weather forecast was a big worry and forced the governor’s hand. With no new openings found on the mountain, he gave the scuba out option the green light.

I called Sunday “anxious Thailand’s longest day” and the wait was awful.

But then came word around 5-30pm that the signs were positive. The Thai police had blocked the lanes leading to the site, but we knew the ambulances would have to bring the boys to the main road. They had four options. Fortunately we chose the right lane and tears came to my eyes when I heard the first sirens.

And the news was far better than anyone here had dared hope. By the close of play that day they had liberated four of them.

  • The daunting task that divers faced to free the group

The next morning divers involved warned that over-confidence was now the enemy. The goal was to ‘rinse and repeat’ Sunday’s mission.

And they did it. By 7pm on Monday eight were out and five left.

The news business is always in search of new angles. By Tuesday afternoon we decided we had filmed enough ambulances and wanted to try to see the boys on stretchers. There was only one chance of that – them being carried from their ambulances to the helicopters that would airlift them to the nearest hospital.

Cameraman Sean Swan identified the roof he wanted to be on. Our brilliant Thai producer Jam and I ambled up to the guy who ran the bulding and we had a wee chat.

Luckily, he seemed to like us. He showed us to a room just under the flat roof. There we waited for five hours while our friend told other journalists no-one was allowed on the roof.

When we heard the wail of an ambulance Sean and myself climbed onto the roof in the belief all eyes – including those the police who had cordoned everything off -would be on the ambulance.

To see the care taken of the child – the oxygen bottle, the drips held aloft, the blue gauze hood to protect his eyes – was very moving indeed.

  • Footage has emerged of inside the cave showing the perilous route the Thai football team had to travel.

Soon all thirteen would be free. Mission impossible was mission accomplished.

The last person out of the cave was one of the four Thai navy seals who had stayed with the boys for the week since they were found.

When he reached safety within the cave system there was a Mexican wave of cheering and clapping as hundreds of rescuers lining the route out erupted.

The noise eventually bellowed out of the mouth of the cave the way notes leave a trumpet.

The international dimension to this rescue was wonderful to behold. The world pulling together to save fellow human beings. Uplifting stuff.

But it was a close run thing. Three hours after the last Navy Seal walked out the pumps broke and the cave system started to flood again.

  • Watch the rescued boys signal to the camera as parents and hospital workers look on from outside the quarantine room.

The boys looked great in quarantine in hospital, happily watching a box set of World Cup matches. They missed every one since the early group stages.

Last Friday night their predicament looked grim. Divers without equal have pulled off one of the greatest escapes of all time.

As one of them put it – “It was the experience of a lifetime, but something I never ever want to experience again.”