Report

Mission Impossible: Inside the Dramatic Cave Rescue of a Thai Soccer Team

Two U.S. special operations airmen recall the ordeal.

U.S. Air Force Maj. Charles Hodges (left) and airmen from the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command meet with Royal Thai military officials and a Thai engineering company to advise and assist in the rescue operation at the Tham Luang cave system on June 30. (U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Jessica Tait)
U.S. Air Force Maj. Charles Hodges (left) and airmen from the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command meet with Royal Thai military officials and a Thai engineering company to advise and assist in the rescue operation at the Tham Luang cave system on June 30. (U.S. Air Force photo by Capt. Jessica Tait)

At a certain moment during the mission to rescue young members of a soccer team and their coach in Thailand this past summer, U.S. Air Force Maj. Charles Hodges calculated the odds of success and decided they weren’t very high.

The soccer players, ranging in age from 11 to 16, were stuck in a sprawling network of caves known as Tham Luang. Monsoon rains had quickly filled the tight passageways.

Hodges, the U.S. mission commander for the dramatic rescue, had flown to the area with his team from a base in Kadena, Japan. On arrival, he received the initial briefing.

“It was even worse than what was painted,” he recalled recently. “I thought it was highly, highly probable that we would never find these kids.”

Hodges and a second airman involved in the rescue, Master Sgt. Derek Anderson, discussed their ordeal with a small group of reporters this week—more than two months after the mission—at the Air Force Association’s annual conference in National Harbor, Maryland.

Over the course of 18 days in late June and early July, Hodges and his airmen from the 353rd Special Operations Group, along with members of the Air Force’s 31st Rescue Squadron, the Thai government, and an international team of rescuers from Britain, Australia, and other countries, worked to plan and eventually stage the rescue.

It involved more than 10,000 international volunteers, including over 100 divers, and riveted people across the world

By the time the U.S. airmen arrived at the mouth of the cave, at around 2 a.m. on June 28, the situation seemed hopeless. When the team first entered the cave, the water was at ankle level, according Anderson, a special tactics officer with the 353rd Special Operations Group based at Kadena and the U.S. senior enlisted leader for the mission. But in less than an hour, the water level had risen to 2 feet. The pouring rain made the cave “undivable,” he said.

To make matters worse, the multinational team had next to no information about Tham Luang, a more than 6-mile-long cave system filled with deep recesses, narrow passages, and tunnels winding beneath more than 600 feet of limestone.

At one point, the Thai government thought the best plan was to leave the children in the cave until the rainy season ended, keeping them alive by shuttling food back and forth. But the U.S. team was adamant the boys needed to come out—and fast.

“We were explaining, it’s time to fish or cut bait,” said Hodges, also a special tactics officer with the 353rd Special Operations Group. “If you don’t do something now, the decision will be made for you.”

“Five to six months from now, when the waters recede, we will be lucky if we find any remains at all.”

It was Anderson who came up with the complex rescue plan, which involved placing oxygen tanks and a rope system throughout the cave chambers. Divers practiced the operation in a pool and on land, using water bottles and plastic chairs as props. British cave explorer Vernon Unsworth, who has detailed knowledge of that particular cave complex, was key to figuring out exactly where the boys were located within Tham Luang.

Finally, the international team of 13 divers plus five Thai military SEALs was ready for the mission, and a date was set.

“We were expecting casualties.” said Anderson. “There was never a guarantee. This was unchartered, unprecedented territory. No one had ever done this type of a rescue.”

The divers began the mission on July 8, feeling their way through the cave. The visibility was so bad, it took them hours to move just a few hundred feet. Each inhale brought new danger; their regulators could easily malfunction, because the water flowing through the cave system was thick with mud. Once the divers reached the team, the boys had to be sedated in order to prevent any panicking during the long journey to the mouth of the cave.

It took three days to get all 12 boys and their 25-year-old coach out of the cave.

“We didn’t really let emotions sink in the first day,” Anderson said. “We had four [boys out], but we knew that the smaller ones were still in there.”

In the end, the entire soccer team made out alive. There was only one fatality: Saman Kunan, a former Thai Navy SEAL, who died of asphyxiation after delivering supplies to the stranded group.

Even after the mission was over, it took a full day for the rescue team to relax and let the events sink in, Anderson said.

“We are trained to set emotion aside. You have to laser-focus on whatever task you are given until it is completely finished,” he explained. “After that last group was pulled out, I think everybody was still in that focus mode, and it took us a while to kind of decompress and let the emotions back in.”

Anderson said he hoped to never face another cave ordeal.

“There were so many things that could have gone wrong and caused death, and miraculously did not,” he said.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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