Interviewing Mikko Paasi: Thai Cave Rescue Diver

February 26, 2020Interviews

On 23 June 2018, 12 boys and their football coach went exploring Thailand’s Tham Luang cave – and ended up trapped. Heavy rains partially flooded the cave, blocking their way out. All members of the football team made it out of the cave alive on 10 July, after 18 days in almost total darkness. 

Fifteen months later, a feature movie “The Cave” has been premiered at the Busan International Film Festival on 5 October 2019. The movie focuses on the rescue attempt itself and features many of the real people who participated. “The Cave” will be released this week in Sweden (27 February), Finland (28 February), and Poland (28 February).

Finnish dive instructor and explorer Mikko Paasi was one of the brave divers involved in the rescue mission, which had the whole world holding its breath.

Mikko lives in Thailand and is part of the “Suratthani Rescue” team as well as the owner of the diving school Koh Tao Divers. When he heard about the incident, he was in Malta. Little did he know that a few days later, he’ll be making sure that the kids get safely transported out of the cave.

How did you get involved in the Tham Luang cave rescue?

Working in Thailand, the incident happened in my backyard, so to speak. Being part of a rescue team in Thailand, I was able to follow the whole process through a my friends, Ben Reymenants and Bruce Konefe, who were already engaged at the scene. The technical diving community is quite small.

At that time, the rescue team needed special equipment, so I was sending them what I had and contacted as many people as I knew who could help out. Then, one thing led to another; I temporarily closed my dive school in Thailand and flew out from Malta to see how I can help the rescue team on site.  I still wasn’t planning to dive, maybe to carry some tanks, but not to dive. Then I found myself at the far end of the cave, indexing the extraction of the kids. That’s how fast everything went.

What was your role during the rescue mission?

The team and I were cleaning the line to the kids and delivering stage tanks to the chambers. We basically made sure that the line was open, that everybody had enough air. 

During the rescue, I was stationed at chamber eight with Dr. Craig Challen and Claus Rasmussen. There were divers in every chamber, taking care of each kid individually. We checked if they needed medical help and made sure that they passed safely from one chamber to the next.

What are the biggest factors to take into account as a rescue diver when planning for such an operation?

Personal safety is the number one factor when planning. You don’t want to risk your own life, so you need to be sure that you can handle the situation and feel comfortable with the task.

During this mission, teamwork is definitely crucial. Having very minimal time to organize ourselves forced us to improvise quite a lot and make decisions on the spot. The Tham Luang Cave is a dry cave, so it’s not really suited for diving. We didn’t have any maps to orient ourselves nor proper lines to follow. Also, the weather was calling the shots at all times. The conditions could change at any given moment. In case of sudden massive rainfall, we had to be attentive and prepared to dive out at any moment.

Mikko Paasi (left) and Claus Rasmussen (right) getting ready to dive in from chamber #3 during the rescue operation.

We all know that the scenario was very special, having 13 kids at the end of the cave, and we need to bring them out alive. I knew that I could bring out anything the size of a kid. Still, to actually have a living person underneath your arm, that’s different. The psychological pressure and responsibility we felt were enormous.

What was going through your head when you were in the cave?

Not much. You tend to block everything out and only think about what you are actually doing. Overthinking in such situations can freeze you. For me, it was easier to think and act from move to move. That helped to manage the stress.

Psychologically, we prepared ourselves the night before. When we were actually working in the cave, we tried to think of “little packages” that we’re bringing out.

Mikko Paasi getting ready to receive the first kid from camber nine.

You were playing yourself in “The Cave”. How was that experience for you?

I was happy to be involved in the movie. I think it was very important to have many of the actual rescue divers involved. We were able to consult the movie team on how we experienced the mission ourselves. So, our main contribution to the movie wasn’t so much our acting — it was to make sure that everything is as authentic as it can be. 

Did the movie turn out as authentic as you would like it to be?

I believe it’s very well done and quite authentic. I was a single diver in this big operation, so I can only speak about the depiction of my own experience. But I do believe that the movie turned out genuine and gets the main story out there.

However, people need to remind themselves that this is a feature movie and not a documentary. You’ll never be able to capture everything. It’s impossible to put all our experiences and the grand scale of this rescue mission into a two-hour movie.

What do you think of other recent diving movies, like ”Underwater”, which portray diving as a quite dangerous sport/ occupation?

It’s definitely great to see a rising interest in the subject. However, it would be even more significant to see more movies that portray diving more from another point-of-view — to focus more on exploration rather than danger and adrenaline. Maybe that’s not dramatic enough for the movie industry.

Apropos movies, how important would you say video recording a rescue missions like this?

I think it should be mandatory during rescue operations similar to this. A camera can save lives. It’s tremendously helpful to be able to show your teammates footage of what’s going on inside a cave during a rescue mission. You can learn from things that are going well and things that didn’t turn out that well. Video Recordings are an excellent resource for training and help prepare rescue teams for real situations.

You went back into the Tham Luang cave recently. How did that feel for you?

When I heard about the possibility of going back in, I was immediately interested. There were still a lot of open questions. What did the cave actually look like? Was there another way in? During the rescue, we only experienced the cave flooded and in absolute darkness.

It was also very emotional to get back to chamber nine and sit down where the kids were trapped. We had one of the kids with, re-telling us the story. That was powerful.

Mikko Paasi (left) and Narongsak Osatanakorn, Governor of Chiang Rai province, revisit the Tham Luang Cave in January 2019. The water flow during the incident was so powerful, it nailed a tank to the ceiling.

What’s going to happen to the Tham Luang cave now?

The first chamber is now open to the public. It is being turned into a tourist attraction, which is pretty good for the little village. They can benefit a lot from that and educate people about what happened to the kids back in 2018.

Thank you Mikko Paasi.

Watch the Trailer here:

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