By Pratch Rujivanarom
Highly adaptive planning and management have been credited as the key factors in the successful mission to pluck 12 boys and their coach from what many had thought was certain death in a flooded Chiang Rai cave. Agencies, experts and volunteers who worked on the rescue yesterday gathered at the Engineering Institute of Thailand to discuss the lessons they had learned as they overcame tough challenges to achieve total success in one of the world’s most difficult rescue missions.
Such an accomplishment could never have been achieved without that mission’s use of adaptive rescue plans and a mitigation management system, said a senior official with the Disaster Prevention and Mitigation Department.
“According to the world’s leading experts on cave diving, the nature of this mission and its challenges made it one of the toughest cave rescue operations not only in Thailand but in the entire world,” said the department’s deputy director-general Kobchai Boonyaorana.
“Thanks to well organised and flexible management and control at the rescue command centre, and the ability to adapt to situations at hand, the team was able to shrink the problems and difficulties and finally accomplish this ‘mission impossible’.”
The first major obstacles the rescue team faced, explained Kobchai, were the hostile environment inside the cave and the complexity of the topography. The team, composed of foreign cave divers and Navy SEALs, needed to negotiate deep water with near-zero visibility while also struggling through narrow spaces and other obstacles in an environment running low on oxygen.
The rescue team also lacked detailed data on the geography of the cave system, which had not been thoroughly explored. At the operation’s start, there was not even an accurate map available.
The team of Navy SEALs who were in charge of operations lacked proper equipment for cave diving and were using air tanks suitable for open-ocean diving, which is their speciality. Cave diving requires more advance skill and equipment, and is much more dangerous than standard diving, Kobchai said.
At the same time, the command centre had to deal with the challenge managing up to 7,000 officials from 337 different organisations working together in an extremely difficult operation in which a single mistake could spell catastrophe.
A core element of the rescue was efforts to drain floodwater to create a safer exit for the boys.
“However, we prevailed over natural obstructions with the strong dedication of all officials, who despite exhaustion continued to work to drain water from the cave system with various methods, until the Navy SEALs could take all survivors out safely,” Kobchai said.
“We also have to give credit to the strict chain of command under the administration of former Chiang Rai provincial governor, Narongsak Osottanakorn, which ensured well-organised operation management and made this operation successful.”
Anukoon Sorn-ek, an expert on cave exploration and geography, noted that the challenges were so serious that the British cave rescue team initially said the rescue operation was impractical.
But the Navy SEALs team showed they could adapt and face the situation with the equipment and resources they had at hand, and the British cave rescue team decided to carry on until the end, he added.
National Park, Wildlife and Plant Conservation deputy director-general Chongklai Worapongsathorn said Thailand had just passed one of the hardest tests yet of its ability to cope with disasters and emergencies.
The operation has gifted the nation with precious lessons for the future, he said.
“With the lessons from this cave disaster, our department is now working to set up safety measures and rules for travelling inside the caves to prevent similar incidents in the future,” Chongklai said.
“There are we more than 100 caves in national parks across the country open to visitors.”