Mae Sai The Thai boys saved from a flooded cave endured dives in zero visibility and in places were put in a harness and high-lined across rocky caverns, in what a leader of the US contingent called a "once in a lifetime rescue."
More details of the boys' harrowing ordeal were revealed by Master Sergeant Derek Anderson, a 32-year-old rescue specialist with the US Air Force based in Okinawa, Japan
He said the dozen boys, ranging in age from 11 to 16, and their coach, who were trapped for more than two weeks, were "incredibly resilient".
"What was really important was the coach and the boys all came together and discussed staying strong, having the will to live, having the will to survive," Master Sergeant Anderson said on Wednesday.
The complicated operation to bring the boys out of the cave began on Sunday, when four were extracted. Four more were brought out on Monday, and the operation ended on Tuesday with the rescue of the last four boys and their 25-year-old coach.
US Air Force Master Sergeant Derek Anderson details the perilous mission to rescue 12 Thai boys and their coach stuck in a cave
The 18-day ordeal riveted much of the world – from the awful news that the 13 were missing, to the first flickering video of the huddle of anxious yet smiling boys when they were found by a pair of British divers nearly 10 days later.
The group had entered the sprawling Tham Luang cave in northern Thailand to go exploring after soccer practice on June 23, but monsoon rains filled the tight passageways, blocking their escape, and pushing them deeper inside in search of a refuge.
The scale of the challenge confronting rescuers from Thailand, Britain, Australia and other countries truly dawned on the US team only after it arrived at the cave in the early hours of June 28 as rain poured down on the region. Thailand's government had requested US assistance.
"The cave was dry when we arrived, and within an hour and half it had already filled up by two to three feet (60-90 centimetres) and we were being pushed out," he said.
"That was just in the very beginning of the cave and at that point we realised this problem is going to be much more complex than we thought."
Thailand's decision to dive the boys out despite their weak condition and lack of diving experience was made when a window of opportunity was provided by relatively mild weather. A massive operation to pump water out also meant air pockets were created at crucial points of the cave, making a rescue possible.
The Thai boys smile as a Thai Navy SEAL medic helps injured teens.
Falling oxygen levels, risk of sickness and the imminent prospect of more rain flooding the cave complex for months meant "the long-term survivability of the boys in the cave was becoming a less and less feasible option", Anderson said.
Divers practised their rescue techniques in a swimming pool with local children about the same height and weight as the members of the Wild Boars soccer team trapped in the cave.
The aim, Master Sergeant Anderson said, was to make each of the boys "tightly packaged" so divers could keep control of them and adjust their air supply as needed. The process lasted hours for each boy, and involved them getting through long passageways barely bigger than an adult body.
Buoyancy compensators that establish neutral buoyancy underwater, hooded wetsuits, bungee cords and special face masks were carried by divers to the cramped patch of dry elevated ground where the boys were huddled.
The positive pressure masks were "really crucial," he said. Their use meant that even if a boy panicked – perhaps because of getting snagged in a narrow passage – and got water inside his mask, the pressure would expel it.
Initial attempts to locate the boys were twice unsuccessful because the force of cold hypothermia-inducing floodwaters rushing into narrow passages made them impassable. Even as conditions improved, and divers began laying life-saving rope guidelines through the cave, it was perilous.
Thai volunteers cheer on news the boys and their coach had been rescued.
"In this type of cave diving, you have to lay line, rope, that's your lifeline. You have to ensure when you go in you have a way out," Master Sergeant Anderson said. "They were making progress, but it was very little progress and they were exhausting themselves spending maybe five or six hours and covering 40 or 50 metres."
There were about 100 people inside the cave for each rescue operation, he said, and each boy was handled by dozens of people as their perilous movement through a total of nine chambers unfolded.
In some phases they were guided by two divers. In some narrow passages they were connected to only one diver. In caverns with air pockets they were "floated" through with the support of four rescuers. Some sections were completely dry but treacherously rocky or deep.
"We had to set up rope systems and high-lines to be able to safely put them in a harness and bring them across large open areas so they wouldn't have to go all the way down," he said.
Cylinders placed at locations throughout the cave for replenishing the boys' air supply were "jammed" with 80 per cent oxygen instead of regular air because "that would plus up their oxygen saturation levels and that would be really good for them, their mental state," he said.
"The world just needs to know that what was accomplished was a once in a lifetime rescue that I think has never been done before," Master Sergeant Anderson said.
"We were extremely fortunate that the outcome was the way it was. It's important to realise how complex and how many pieces of this puzzle had to come together.
"If you lose your cool in an environment like that, there is a lot of bad repercussions."
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