Thailand cave rescue: Diving expert explains the dangers of trying to lead the children to safety

'A severe lack of visibility for a long period of time means they could end up becoming quite nervous. The brain gets confused when it can’t see. They could panic'

Harriet Agerholm
Wednesday 04 July 2018 09:13
Boys found alive in cave in Thailand

The twelve boys and their football coach trapped in a pitch-black cave in Thailand anxiously awaited rescue for nine days. Now their rescuers have arrived, but their ordeal is far from over.

The boys are between 1.2 miles and 2.5 miles into the flooded cave and around half-a-mile below the surface.

It leaves a conundrum for rescuers. Should they stay where they are and wait for the end of the rainy season in October – hoping their chamber does not fill to the top with water? Or should they risk trying to guide the boys underwater through the narrow and winding cave network to the outside?

Here, we examine the issues rescuers face if they try to get them out via the underwater route.

What are the physical dangers?

“None of these boys know how to swim, we’re going to have to treat them from scratch,” Butch Hendrick, a veteran rescue diver and president of Lifeguard Systems in the US, told The Independent.

“We’re going to have to get them used to being in the water. We’ve got to teach them how to use a full face mask. They need to know how to clear it if it does get a little water in it they have to know how to get that water out – the same thing we teach people all over the world.”

The mask will be needed not only to help them breathe, but to protect them from the polluted water in which they will swim, he said.

“The possibility is the water around them is contaminated or polluted,” Mr Hendrick said. “For 10 days there’s been 13 people who have been defecating in that area. We don’t know what went into the cave in terms of contamination and pollution, but we do know they’ve been polluting the area while they’ve been there.”

They would need exposure suits to protect them from this danger as well as from hypothermia brought on by the icy water, he said.

But there could be problems getting hold of such equipment. “Those suits have got to be made special for these boys – they’re not sitting on a shelf somewhere – they’re child sizes,” he said. Manufacturers simply do not cater for child divers, he said.

Missing Thai boys found trapped in cave with their football coach

What are the psychological challenges?

One of the greatest risks is that the children will panic and drown. Having no visibility was likely to make this worse, he said.

“Not only have you got to teach them them how to breath under water and use a full face mask you’ve got to them to understand that they’re not going to see anything.

“A severe lack of visibility for a long period of time means they could end up becoming quite nervous. The brain gets confused when it can’t see. They could panic.”

To help with this, the boys are going to have to get to know their rescuers.

“Each of these boys have got to have a solid bonding with the individual who’s going to take them out,” Mr Hendrick said. “That’s going to take a little it of time for the boy and rescuer to actually reach a point where the boy can trust him. That emotional bonding is imperative to the success of each of these boys coming out.”

Missing Thai boys and coach found alive after nine days stuck in cave

He added: “If they don’t trust him, they’re going to be trying to do their own thing all the time.”

This posed a danger to the rescuers, not just the children, he said. ”As well as the rescuer cannot be in a situation where they are being fought."

He added: “There’s a major amount of danger is trying to get them out – thats why the training process the preparation in getting them ready to go. You can’t just put a mask on them and say here we go. One of the things I would be saying if I was there with them is - this is the next step in an incredible adventure they they have taken. They’re already survived 10 days before we found them on their own.

“The ability to take a child who can’t swim and teach him how to breath underwater is going to be a difficult task – but not an impossible task."

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments