Thai Soccer Team Rescue a True Miracle
When a Thai soccer team and its coach got trapped inside of a cave by flood waters in northern Thailand on June 23, it wasn’t long before the world’s media took notice. Over the next 18 days (June 23-July 11) of the team’s fight for life, heroes — both out front and behind the scenes — were made, but key leaders agree, the miraculous success of the mission has “divine intervention” written all over it.
A few days after the soccer team was trapped, Master Sgt. Derek Anderson, a 15-year U.S. Air Force veteran and Air Force Special Tactics pararescueman stationed in Okinawa, Japan, was told his unit was being called upon to support the Thai government in an “advise and assist” role to the rescue effort. He was both confident and curious. As part of an elite unit, he and his unit had trained for and experienced all kinds of perilous rescues, but the details of this rescue challenge were unknown.
Within eight hours, the unit was on a MC-130J military transport plane. They arrived in Chang Rai, Thailand, at 1 a.m. on June 28. By 2 a.m. they were standing at the mouth of the six-mile long Tham Luang cave where the 12 boys and their soccer coach were trapped somewhere inside.
A MISSIONS BACKGROUND
Derek, 33, is used to challenges. The son of Tim and Debbie Anderson who were appointed as AG world missionaries to Ecuador in 1986, Derek grew up seeking adventure over comfort, excitement over ease. And with the jungles, mountains, tribes, and wild animals of the tropical “equator country,” adventure and excitement were always within easy access.
The name “Derek” means leader of the people, but he was not an “easy” child to raise, his mother admits with a laugh. “Whatever the risk was, he was willing to take it. But he’s always been a leader in whatever he’s doing, and has a gift for looking at a situation, accessing it, and solving any problems with amazing speed.”
His father, Tim, a risk-taker himself who to this day regularly goes on extended jungle treks to evangelize tribes and establish and build churches in Ecuador, sees a lot of himself in Derek as adventure has always called him as well. “I would take the boys [Derek and his brother Philip on 12-hour hikes into jungle villages to share the gospel,” Tim says. Both of Derek’s brothers, Philip, 31, and Matthias, 28, are also serving in the U.S. Air Force.
TEAM FOUND, REAL CHALLENGE BEGINS
But even with all the military training and jungle experiences, Derek, who was the senior enlisted leader for the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command rescue team sent to Thailand and one of the rescue operations primary planners, says he’s never run into a challenge like the one that faced him in attempting to advise and assist the Thailand government in the rescue of the soccer team. The team was trapped inside when monsoon rains unexpectedly hit and quickly flooded the cave’s entrance, which was also its only known exit.
Prior to Derek and his unit’s arrival, a pair of expert cave divers from Britain, Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, had begun to explore the flooded cave, searching for the team. As Derek assisted in the development of a chain of command in order to help coordinate and facilitate rescue possibilities, he met with the British cave divers, who started to explain the extreme challenges the cave presented in even finding the boys and their coach, much less getting them out.
After days of laying lines in order to find their way into and back out of the cave’s murky waters and narrow passageways, Stanton and Volanthen (who were later joined by fellow Briton Jason Mallinson as well as elite cave divers from Finland, Canada, Australia, and Denmark) finally located the soccer team – 10 days after they had disappeared and nearly two miles inside of the cave, temporarily safe, hungry, but otherwise healthy, on a rock shelf above the flood waters.
Mallinson admitted later in an interview that he was confident they would get the team out, but getting them all out alive was a different story.
“While talking to the divers from Britain, they told me it was one of the five most dangerous caves they’ve ever been in,” Derek says. “The water was cold, flowing quickly, and muddy — zero visibility — with deep recesses and narrow passages. It was a difficult journey for anyone but expert cave divers. There was no way boys who may not even know how to swim could dive out of there . . . we considered it our last resort.”
In addition to dive teams, there were multiple teams and hundreds of searchers looking for other access points to the cave. Also, heavy oil drilling equipment was available if they could find a place to attempt to drill down an estimated 400 (in a valley) to 1,500 feet (nearer the mountain top) to reach the team. Large pumps were also brought in to help bring down the cave’s water levels, but they struggled to keep up.
However, when locals identified and diverted rivers and streams from flowing towards and into the cave, the water level began to drop. The pumps were able to make enough progress to bring down the water levels to make entering the cave easier, but not enough to gain access to the team.
Although the boys were two miles deep into the cave, the entire two miles were not underwater. Instead, Derek explains, there were areas where divers could wade or swim across followed by dives of 30 minutes or more that, in some places, went steeply down and then sharply up in narrow passages. After the British divers laid the line, the divers immediately following them (Thai Navy SEALs) had to grasp the line with one hand while feeling for jagged or protruding rocks with the other — most of the time, even with intense headlamps, divers could only see 6-12 inches in front of them. In conditions like this, losing track of the guide line could easily end up costing a diver his or her life.
For former Thai Navy SEAL, Saman Gunan, the conditions did prove too treacherous. While delivering oxygen tanks inside of the cave for others, whether he lost contact with the line or something else went wrong, he ran out of air and perished.
THE ONLY OPTION
But the rescue efforts had to move forward if the soccer team was to be saved. As part of the communications process, the team divided the cave into nine chambers in order to better communicate where rescuers were and supplies were needed. Divers began to move air tanks deeper into the cave system during a break in the rain on Sunday in order to assist the expert divers as well as prepare for the potential of having to dive the team out.
“During one of their visits to the cave, when the British divers and Thai Navy SEALs brought in MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) for the team to eat, we also sent them in with an oxygen sensor, which registered 15 to 16 percent oxygen at the time,” Derek says. “You have to keep in mind, in addition to a low oxygen level, the boys were in a confined area and the stench from their excrement was pretty intense” as stated by Stanton when he initially located the team.
The four Thai Navy SEALs stayed with the team, with one being a medic. In addition to working to keep the team’s spirits up, they had also brought heat blankets and medical supplies. In the meantime, the U.S. rescue team alongside numerous other rescue volunteers and cave divers worked to make a potential dive extraction as successful as possible by creating pulley and harness systems, gathering needed supplies, and continuing to “dive in” oxygen tanks where needed in the cave chambers.
For a period of time, now that the soccer team was found and had food, officials were considering leaving them in the cave for three or four months until the monsoon season had passed, then the team could simply walk out. However, when Derek had his career field medical director/doctor consult the New York Fire Department and learned that at below 19.5 percent oxygen level they were required to use air tanks, he knew the soccer team’s time was running out.
With no alternative access to the cave found, the drilling option no longer considered viable due to time and topography challenges, oxygen levels potentially lowering even more, and a new storm system on the way that would make the success of a dive rescue even more improbable, the U.S. contingent sat down with Thai officials and the British/Australian dive teams and developed a plan. In order for it to work, they would need five more expert cave divers and one of them needed to be an anesthesiologist. Remarkably, the British divers knew of two expert divers in relatively nearby Australia; one, Craig Challen, was a veterinarian, and the other, Dr. Richard “Harry” Harris, an anesthesiologist!
Derek was a member of a smaller Thai-led team that met with the Thai general in charge to explain the situation, their plan, and ask permission to attempt the dangerous dive rescue as it appeared to be the only viable option, slim as it was. The team also requested the Thai government to connect with Australian authorities to contact the two Australian divers as they needed them here “ASAP” for the plan to work.
PREPARING FOR THE RESCUE
The general took the request to the Thai governor who escalated it to the Thai Prime Minister. After reviewing all options, assessing the risk and likelihood of a successful rescue effort, the Prime Minister gave the green light to the team’s best solution that still came with great risk to the children and rescuers. Other rescue options placed the survival of the children at an even lower level.
As divers continued to bring in oxygen and additional equipment to strategic positions within the cave system, all those to be involved inside of the cave for the rescue attempt started rehearsing the attempt outside of the cave to work out any problems and resolve any questions.
As Dr. Harris made his way to the boys to prepare them for what was to come, the rescue team repeated the rehearsal the next day at a local swimming pool, using parentally-approved volunteer children about the same size as the trapped soccer players, and did a fully equipped rehearsal in and under the water.
What is remarkable about the rescue attempt was that if just one of many things that could go wrong went wrong, people would die. There was no room for error or even the unexpected. Yet, miraculously, the right people, the right weather, and the right equipment kept falling into place at the right time.
THE ATTEMPT BEGINS
The British cave divers explained that it was imperative that the boys be sedated by Harris — if the boys were alert and panicked underwater, which could easily happen in the murky, dark depths of the flooded cave, they would likely drown and potentially take a diver with them. Other things that could go wrong included a boy’s full face “positive pressure” air mask malfunctioning or being knocked loose by a jutting rock while they were sedated, illness (boy or diver), the pumps failing, rain coming sooner than expected, the line breaking, head lamps failing, air tanks malfunctioning, the sedation being too great or a boy having an allergic reaction to it, the bungie cords used to keep the boys’ arms and legs from moving freely could snag or break, the pulley system used to transport the boys by stretcher over dry and difficult portions of the cave that weren’t underwater could fail, the sedation wouldn’t be enough and a disoriented boy could awaken and begin to struggle, a diver could injure himself on a jutting rock while trying to protect the boy he’s rescuing, and the list goes on.
Each boy was breathing 80 percent oxygen and there was generally one diver per boy. The divers took turns holding a boy with one hand and the line with the other. Rescue divers pre-positioned in the cave acted as a safety system in case problems arose as the divers with the sedated boys made their way through the intricate underwater cave passages.
“After each diver and the boy they were transporting came up into the third chamber,” Derek says, “there was medical staff or pararescue personnel waiting to check each boy’s vital signs and make sure everything was okay before continuing on.”
Despite all the opportunities for failure, the first day was a total and stunning success that no one on the dive team fully expected. The dive team debriefed after that, made a few adjustments, and then went after the second set of four boys.
“We were having such amazing success, that I became concerned about complacency,” Derek recalls. “We discussed amongst the divers about the real potential of some of the boys not making it out alive and how we had to keep emotion out of it and stay professional — we still had lives depending upon us.”
The next two rescues went just as perfectly as the first . . . , but to illustrate how close the attempt was to failure, just as soon as the coach and the last four boys made it to the mouth of the cave, and with two of the four Royal Thai Navy SEALs still making an underwater dive and making their way out from where the boys were discovered in Chamber Nine, an interior water pump failed and Chambers Two and Three of the cave quickly started to flood. Personnel in those chambers were ordered to evacuate immediately while a handful of rescuers waited to receive the last remaining Thai SEALs.
As the final SEAL surfaced, he and the remaining international rescue team members, some with underwater breathing devices and some without (due to the previously dry, but now rapidly flooding, chamber), had to contend with a subsurface dive that was quickly filling up to become a completely submerged subsurface dive from Chamber Three to Chamber Two before finally reaching the mouth of the cave and the hundreds anxiously waiting their arrival. With only seconds to spare, the remaining rescuers avoided catastrophe in the final minutes of the rescue as they slipped out of Chamber Three and safely out the mouth of the cave.
“One more day of intense rains and those remaining kids and the coach would have been trapped in there for months,” Derek said. “Death would have been almost certain.”
GOD GETS THE CREDIT
As the world celebrated the Thai Navy SEALs for their heroic ability to lead and assemble an international rescue effort to save the team and its coach, a small collection of rescuers, including Derek and a handful of other U.S., Australian, and British divers, came to agreement that this was no ordinary rescue.
“People all over the world were praying for the team’s rescue,” Derek says. “We all felt that there had to be supernatural intervention to have this outcome. For me, I absolutely know there was divine intervention, that God enabled every one of us to perform at the best of our abilities, that He held back the rains. The situation could have ended drastically worse, but it didn’t.”
Retired Army Col. Chaplain Scott McChrystal, the military representative and endorser for the Assemblies of God, states, “The challenges facing the Thai SEALs, Derek, his teammates, and the others involved in the rescue effort cannot be overstated. The teamwork was virtually flawless. But at the end of the day, it is clear, that God made the difference between success and failure. God expects us to do our best. He does the rest.”
Back in Ecuador, Debbie was aware of her son’s efforts, but Tim had been on a two-week trek into the jungle and only knew that Derek and his team had been brought in. When he learned of the success of the mission and the obstacles overcome, he agreed with Derek. “I’m just amazed at God’s hand in the whole thing,” he says. “Without the Lord, it could have gone very, very badly.”
It should be noted that U.S. special operations, pararescue airmen have trained for, witnessed, and lived experiences that go far beyond the limits of normal physical and mental endurance. The school they attend just to start training is referred to as “Superman School” in the military (it’s that difficult), which is then followed by seven additional training schools that few could even dream of passing. It’s no exaggeration when they are referred to as among the best of the very best in the world and have a mindset that they can accomplish anything asked of them.
Yet for Derek and others who are among the best in the world with their medical, rescue, and diving skills, the reason for the incredible success of the rescue has only one answer.
Derek explains it simply: “God had His hand on this operation.”
*Editor’s note: to view a television report, which Master Sgt. Derek Anderson, senior enlisted leader for the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command Thai Cave search and rescue team, believes is the most accurate television report on the rescue to date, see the 4 Corners report, Out of the Dark. A later report done by ABC 20/20, One Way Out, in July was viewed as similarly accurate.