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IU instructor, cave rescue expert offers advice, thoughts on Thailand cave rescue



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Rescuers work July 9, 2018, near the cave where 12 young soccer team members and their coach were trapped in Chiang Rai, Thailand.  Tribune News Service Buy Photos

An 18-day ordeal for 13 members of the Wild Boars soccer team in Thailand came to an end July 10, when the final team members were successfully pulled from the flooded Tham Luang caves.

In total, 12 boys and one coach from the team were all rescued from the flooded caves. The rescue efforts to safely find and remove the team members were international events, with British divers first finding the group safe inside the cave, before an international group of rescuers helped bring the team members to safety.

The rescue operation was closely followed by media outlets around the world, and Anmar Mirza, a national coordinator for the National Cave Rescue Commission, soon found himself in high demand as someone able to explain what was going on in Thailand to different audiences.

In addition to his role with the NCRC, Mirza also teaches the Emergency Medical Technician class within the Department of Applied Health Science in the School of Public Health at IU.

The Indiana Daily Student spoke with Mirza about the success of the cave rescue in Thailand, why the rescue was so difficult and what those exploring caves in Bloomington and Monroe County should do to remain safe.


Q: What is your reaction to the soccer team members being able to make it out of the cave?

A: The people who were involved with the management of the rescue and the people who were actually involved with performing the rescue itself, I just commend outstanding work. I could not have done any better if I were there. I felt that they made just absolutely outstanding decisions. 

They were in a very tough position because if anything had gone wrong, every single decision they made would be questioned right now. From that standpoint, everybody is very fortunate, the people who got out and the people who managed it, that even if something had gone wrong, I would stand behind the decisions they were making.


Q: Why was it so dangerous to rescue the team members?

A: There were three primary options: one was to try to dive them out, which is what they ended up doing. The other option was to wait until the water went down and they can walk out, and early on that was considered a good option because they were pumping the water down, water was getting lower. The next option was to either try to find or make a new entrance into the cave, that too was being explored simultaneously.

To be clear, they were exploring all three options simultaneously, it wasn't like they were going with one and leaving the others alone. 

The problem with waiting for the water to go down was they're in the middle of the monsoon season and it was going to be weeks to months before any possible opportunity would happen. If they could have stayed safe where they were, then waiting was the safest option.

The problem is that it was unknown whether the area they were in the cave was safe from the water rising further. If they were not safe, then the riskier diving option was going to be the preferred choice.

Of course, if they ended up waiting, they would have also been exploring putting in another entrance at the same time and teaching the kids to be diving at the same time, so they would have had the maximum number of options available.

In this case, the weather cooperated and they were able to pump the cave down to the point where the diving option, while still risky, was much less risky than it was. They were also facing fatal air in the cave with the oxygen levels dropping and the carbon dioxide levels rising, and that was actually driving the decision to make an attempt to do the dive. 

With the monsoon weather coming in, it was predicted to potentially inundate the area that the kids were staying. So they figured it was better to do that now, when the water was at its lowest and the diving was the easiest because the water was so low.


Q: What were the risks of trying to get the kids out for both the kids and the rescuers?

A: Honestly, even somebody who was an open-water diver would only be a little bit better off than the boys there. The lack of swimming skills and the lack of diving skills certainly made it harder, but it was really the being in a blackout environment when you are underwater in a very tight and closed space. 

Even people who aren't prone to claustrophobia would freak out if even one to two breaths were interrupted for whatever reason, whether the face mask got knocked off or there was a problem with equipment, or they got snagged on something. Any moment of panic in there, any equipment failure, there's no room for error. It would have been fatal within a minute or two.


Q: What were the mistakes made by the boys and their coach to get caught in that situation, and what lessons should apply to those in Bloomington and Monroe County about how not to get stuck in a similar situation?

A: Well, one of the basic caving rules is to know how the cave you're in reacts to the weather. Some caves are very safe when it rains and some caves can flood very much. In Monroe County, in 1973, three people died in a local cave when the flood waters came in the cave and, instead of going to higher ground, they tried to exit and they ended up drowning. 

Knowing how the cave reacts and knowing what the weather is going to do. Even knowing what the weather is going to do is not necessarily a guarantee of safety. In December 2016, there was a flood in a cave in southern Indiana called Binkley Cave, which trapped seven people and friends of mine for almost three days. They were safe in the cave, but of course we on the outside did not know if they were safe or not.

One of the caves I do every week, basically it can't flood, there's nowhere in the cave that's really in danger, and just two miles away is that cave that killed the three people in the '70s.

It's best to follow good safe caving practices, such as having the proper equipment, going with people that are experienced, who know what they're doing. There's a link to the guide for responsible caving which has all sorts of good tips and tricks and things like that on the NSS website, the National Speleological Society website. There's all sorts of good information there.


Q: What's one thing you've noticed that people should know about caving?

A: As far as caving goes, caving itself, if you follow the basic safe caving rules, is very safe. The injury and fatality rate in caving is much less than just about any other activity that you can do. 

More people get hurt or killed playing basketball than going caving, if they're following the safe caving rules. If they don't follow the safe caving rules, that's when problems can happen.

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