World United – The Thai cave rescue
We had the opportunity to interview one of the divers that were part of the rescue team, Mikko Paasi, who helped save a young football team and their coach in Thailand. Here is what he had to say about the Thai cave rescue.
Please tell us a bit about yourself and your diving experience
I started diving 25 years ago but the real spark for it I got when I did my first instructor ratings between 1998 and 1999 at Ojamo mine in Finland, that is where I got my passion for overhead environment diving too. After that, I’ve been running my dive center, Koh Tao Divers, here in Thailand and Malta.
My passion is wreck diving and I have managed to locate dozens of warships and other historic vessels in my back yard South China Seas during the last decade. I keep my routine up by being able to dive daily off the islands that I live, Koh Tao and Malta.
How did you find out about the trapped people in Thailand?
First I heard about the kids in the cave from social media and then got updates from my friends who were amongst the first ones in the scene.
What was your first thought/feeling when you heard the news?
I remember swearing that I’m half the world away in Malta, I felt that maybe I could help somehow?
How did you get involved in the Thai cave rescue?
I’ve run a dive center, Koh Tao Divers, in Thailand for 20 years now so I got messages from the scene asking for equipment etc. First I send pretty much all our sidemount dive gear up to the cave and then flew my self and a couple of sidemount rebreathers to the site from Malta, where I run another center, just to see if they would be needed and then eventually they were needed.
How were you involved? What was your role in the Thai cave rescue?
My role during the Thai cave rescue was first to clean the way to the kids and stage tanks on the way out for the trapped children and the Navy SEAL. After that, during the actual extraction, I was one of the ”support divers” working in the chamber #8 and #7 with Craig Challen and Erik Brown helping the kids through the terrain between those chambers.
How many people were part of the Thai cave rescue? (divers, medics, etc.)
It is hard to say exactly how many divers, medics etc. was involved in the whole rescue but my guess would be 20-30 Thai Navy SEAL, same amount of US special forces, Australian Federal Police and the Thai Army together had a group of 20-30 divers involved but the actual diving past chamber #3 onward was done by 10 Thai Navy SEAL and our 16 strong groups of international cave divers. What happened outside the cave I can only guess but there was so much effort put to so many angles that the number of people involved in the Thai cave rescue goes up to thousands.
What was the preparation process for the Thai cave rescue?
Each team had their own tasks but We prepared for the extraction by staging tanks and cleaning the way out of cables and extra ropes etc. We also practiced on land and in a swimming pool to get an idea of possible complications.
What were the steps taken to reach them safely?
In my opinion, the only way to reach the kids in the first place was to leave it up to the icons of cave diving and it still was far from safe to do that. After the line was set up it was much more easy to make the trip in and out. Toward the end of the operation, the conditions got better thank’s to the weather and the engineers directing the water flow outside.
What was the state of the people trapped when the rescue started? (Mentally/Physically)
The state of the Wild Boars when they were found after being trapped for 10 days was unbelievably good in both mentally and physically. Their incredible strength was undoubtedly the main reason why they are still alive.
Could you go through the process of rescuing the children? From the location, they were found in until dry land.
The Wild Boar was trapped in chamber #9 approximately 2,3 km from the cave entrance. To get out of there you need to first dive a narrow 300m long passage to chamber #8 (Pattaya beach) then strip the diving gear and put each victim on a stretcher and carry that to chamber #7 through a quite rough terrain of rocks, sumps, and restrictions. Then you would gear up the child again with full face mask, tank, and a buoyancy device and dive to the next chamber where you can change a tank if needed and see the condition of your package.
Each chamber had a support diver team to help out with whatever was needed. The hardest part was between chambers 4 and 3 where there were the most difficult restrictions and a huge amount of obstacles like water pumps and many different cables etc. entanglement hazards. After you managed through those and the 1,5 km of total driving distance you would enter the chamber #3 where there were medics and other personnel to take the child, check his vitals put on a stretcher and pass on toward the exit that still was 800 meters, a zip line, and various restrictions away.
Which were the difficulties you have encounter during the Thai cave rescue?
The week that I spent in the cave was physically extremely demanding and we didn’t get to sleep more than 3-4 hours a night. Mental stress was growing toward the end of it simply because the tasks were getting higher and at some points, you had to make life or death decisions for the child totally on your own. The worst for me was when I was diving one of the children through the restrictions between chambers 4 and 3 and I couldn’t get through the last one with the child under my arm and had to make a decision to turn back and form another plan or keep trying to push through and risk the mask flooding or him running out of air… eventually I choose to turn around and play it safe but it was the longest minutes in my diving career.
Which were the risks?
The risks were pretty high, anything could go wrong at any time and the whole world is watching. The most we were afraid of was that the child would panic or suffer from hypothermia.
What have you learned from this experience?
I’ve learned from all this that everything is possible and that we can all work together and forget our differences if at least for a brief moment. It felt like for once everybody on this planet was on the same side and we all won.
What would you recommend to future divers attempting a rescue like this?
Make sure your skills are polished and don’t hesitate to offer your expertise.
Could you talk a bit about how the Paralenz Dive Camera helped to document the Thai cave rescue and what offers as a piece of diving equipment in situations like these?
I strongly believe that in these kinds of or similar situations each rescuer should wear a camera like Paralenz that can take a hit and is reliable to perform even in harsh conditions. In this case, the cameras were used to record how does a certain chamber look for example, very handy when nobody knows where you actually staged the tanks for the divers.
Also for the aftermath and in the case, something would have gone wrong it would be the only proof for you to explain the situation and learn from there. There was a few Paralenz in the cave and we will see one day if any of the footage made it out?
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