The world is a big place, and every day, something amazing happens on this blue globe we call home, an occurrence so astounding that it would take your breath away. So often, though, these things fail to capture our collective consciousness and they pass by entirely unnoticed.
Then again, sometimes these events grab us by the nape of our necks, and all we can do is watch spellbound as an incredible drama unfolds. This is precisely what happened with the Thailand cave rescue.
On June 23, 2018, 16-year-old Peerapat Sompiangjai was supposed to celebrate his birthday. When the Thai soccer player didn’t return home, his family became concerned and started searching.
They eventually found his bike and those of his teammates stacked and the entrance of the Tham Luang Nang Non cave where their 25-year-old assistant soccer coach had taken them for a little spelunking. But it was monsoon season, and rains had flooded the caverns, trapping the 13 people inside.
People on every continent were soon watching a rescue attempt that proved every bit as tactical as the most intense warfare. Most didn’t realize, though, that the man behind all the efforts in The Land of Smiles was a South Carolina native.
Maj. Charles D. Hodges, the U.S. mission commander for the Air Force’s 353rd Special Operations unit, led the military operation to save the boys. Yet even he didn’t expect it to end well.
“We train for rescue diving and, at times, we’ve trained for cave rescue,” Hodges said during a “Good Morning America” interview. “But we don’t ever train for cave-rescue diving.
“I’m incredibly impressed with the way that it worked out, but at the time, candidly, I was thinking that it would be much worse results.” He had good reason to think that.
Over the 18-day operation, crews had to thread their way through water-filled passageways and use specially designed gurneys to ferry out the children, few of whom could swim — much less scuba dive. However, the rain continued to fall, and the rescue crews found themselves working with the thinnest of safety margins.
The reality of the precariousness of the situation hit on the third day after crews located the soccer players. Retired Thai Navy SEAL Saman Gunan lost consciousness while delivering oxygen tanks and died.
Hodges had initially wanted to have two divers per boy in order to ensure a safe evacuation. But a lack of trained personnel meant he had to cut back.
“It ended up being normally one diver per boy just because we had a minimal amount of divers,” he said. “This was extremely risky with a low probability of success.”
Perhaps so, yet Gunan proved the only casualty during the whole operation. All 12 boys and the coach were safely recovered.
It almost turned out differently. Large pumps, which had been pumping water out of the caves, clicked off during the final leg of the operation and the water level started to rise.
Hodges described that as “an abort criteria for our guys,” so the military men started moving fast. They were able to escape from the cave chamber with little time to spare.
“It took every single one of us, putting our heads together and pushing aside any sort of political or cultural differences, and doing our best to find a solution to do this,” Hodges said in a “CBS This Morning” interview. “What I take away from this is how much can be accomplished from teamwork, because it was pretty impressive.”