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Thursday, July 12, 2018

The heroes of Thailand

Por Nina

The international rescue teams and the elite corps of the Thai Navy successfully concluded Tuesday what seemed like an impossible mission a week ago. In three days they managed to evacuate the twelve children and their soccer coach from the labyrinthine and flooded cave of Tham Luang, in northern Thailand, after being trapped inside on 23 June, due to a sudden flood caused by the torrential rains. The happy ending was possible thanks to the great work of the rescuers, who coordinated so that nothing would fail. Thailand already knows what the great national heroes are after a few days in which this cave has been the center of the world: the divers Richard Stanton and John Volanthen, the Australian doctor Richard Harris, the trainer Ekapol Chanthawong and the head of the operation Narongsak Osatanakorn.

Rick Stanton and John Volanthen have unwittingly become the main protagonists of the rescue. They were the two divers who located the twelve children and their assistant soccer coach inside the cave, huddled in a mound of earth and surrounded by water, after nine days of unsuccessful search. Stanton, 57, from Coventry, and Volanthen, 47 and Brighton, have been diving together for about fifteen years and collaborating on complicated rescue operations. One worked as a firefighter until he retired, and the other is an engineer specializing in information technology, but what they are passionate about is spelunking and diving. Sports in which they started as teenagers and whose passion has led them to become specialists in complex rescue operations. Some missions that do not hesitate to go when they are claimed or consider that their services may be useful like has been the case of the twelve Thai children and their second coach. On this occasion, the story has had a happy ending, but it is not always the case. In 2010, for example, after ten intense days of work they could not recover alive a speleologist who lost communication in a cave in the French province of Ardèche after a landslide.

Richard Harris is 53 years old and is an anesthetist by profession in the Australian town of Adelaide. On his shoulders fell the enormous responsibility of giving the green light to the rescue operation. Expert diver with more than 30 years of experience, it was he who decided that the children were physically and psychologically able to make the tough journey through the narrow passageways flooded with water from the Tham Luang grotto, even though many of them ended up to learn swimming and diving. And not only that, but also decided the order in which they were going to leave. A risky decision, since he himself did not know if after the first, the others would also have the opportunity to leave the cave or would be blocked by an increase in water level caused by monsoon rains. Harris went to Chiang Rai claimed by British cavers, who know his skills as a diver and doctor and his experience in difficult cave rescues. One of the toughest in which this doctor, who works in the emergency medical recovery service of the state of South Australia, participated was the recovery of the lifeless body of his friend Agnes Milowka, who died in February 2011 after running out of air while searching for a cave exit in South Australia.

Getting stuck in Tham Luang's cave was not the first drama that fit into his life Ekapol Chanthawong, 25, the assistant coach of the soccer team. When he was a 10-year-old boy he saw his parents and his younger brother die. In 2003, an epidemic of a respiratory disease that especially affected the north of Thailand swept away his family. He was the only survivor. His aunt Umporn Sriwichai took care of him and after two years decided to enter a Buddhist monastery. There he spent ten years, until in 2015 he left to take care of his aunt. That same year, the Mae Sai Prasitart school created the Wild Boar soccer team and started working as an assistant coach.

On June 23 he took over the team because his boss had another commitment, and at the end of the game he took them on an excursion to the cave. There the storm caught them and prevented them from leaving. The parents of the children do not blame him. During the nine days they remained without communication he taught them to meditate to save energy and he managed to keep them calm and optimistic. It has been said that he was the weakest when they were found, because he had given his food to the little ones. In the note sent to their families, he apologized to the parents and promised to take care of them as best he could. All have come out safe and sound.

The dramatic rescue of the cave has made Narongsak Osatanakorn a national hero, who before all this was the gray and unknown governor of a poor province like the northern Chiang Ra. The professionalism of the governor, who has studies in geology and engineering, his nerves of steel, the precision with which he has informed in the press conferences of the details of the search and rescue operation, of which he was the chief coordinator, have fascinated the Thais. To the annoyance of the authorities, because when the children were lost in the cave, Osatanakorn was already an acting governor. In April, he was told that he could go packing, since this summer he was going to be sent as governor to a smaller province.

A simple routine relief, maintains the military junta, but his fans say that the dismissal was a punishment for having refused to sign corrupt construction projects. Osatanakorn was formally replaced last weekend, but popular pressure forced the prime minister, General Prayut Chan-ocha, to keep him in charge of the rescue operation. The Thai media have devoted laudatory articles to this serious and honest man, so different from the corrupt and inefficient figures who dominate national politics.