The world waited with bated breath as 12 junior footballers aged 11-16 and their coach fought for life inside a heavily flooded cave for days during the 2018 monsoons in Thailand. There was a collective sigh of relief and a series of celebrations when they were brought out alive after 18 days in a rescue operation involving experts from several countries.
Three years later, two American filmmakers who follow and film adventurous women and men around the world, have completed a new documentary capturing the ordeal and the daring rescue planned and performed by some of the finest cave divers in the world.
The Rescue by Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin takes the camera deep inside the Tham Luang cave, Thailand's fourth longest cave system lying under the Doi Nang Non mountains in Mae Sai bordering Myanmar, to retell the remarkable tale of the rescue operation.
The 114-minute documentary by Vasarhelyi, who directed Meru (2015) about climbing the dangerous Himalayan peak, and husband and mountaineer Chin, paints an awe-inspiring portrait of human spirit and survival against all odds.
The husband-wife team had won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2019 for Free Solo, on American rock climber Alex Honnold's gravity-defying climb of the 3,000-foot high El Capitan rock without a rope.
Adventure and endurance
In The Rescue, which premiered at the just-concluded Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the famous filmmakers continue to script stories of adventure and endurance. Their focus this time is on the phenomenal skills of cave divers, especially Rick Stanton and John Volanthen, the two British experts first roped in to find the children. Two Australians - anesthesiologist Richard Harris and cave explorer Craig Challen - heavily involved in the mission to ferry the children out under sedation also feature prominently in the film.
The 12 junior players of the Wild Boar club were celebrating a birthday in the Tham Luang cave with their coach on June 24, 2018 when the exit was blocked by rising waters from monsoon rains that had arrived a month early. The Thai Navy Seals, who were called in, failed to find the children. It was then that Vern Unsworth, a British financial analyst and cave explorer living in Chiang Rai, handed over a note to Chiang Rai province governor Narongsak Osatanakom.
Known locally as the "crazy foreign caver", Unsworth had been involved in the exploration of the Tham Luang cave system. "These are the best cave divers in the world," Unsworth told the governor about the list that had the names of Stanton and Volanthen. Stanton was a retired fireman and Volanthen worked as an IT consultant.
"When I see a dark space in a cave, it's interesting," says Stanton. "To most people it is an alien environment, claustrophobic, but this is the world that I enjoy caving, cave diving," he adds. "You can look at a cave in two ways," explains Volanthen. "You could say, 'I am under hundreds of feet and tons of rock and my life is in danger', or you can say, 'My world is this small passage. Actually it's okay'," he adds.
Chaos in the cave
The two cave divers arrived in the cave to chaos, poor visibility, raging waters and man-made hazards like telephone wires and cables. In their first dive, they found four pump workers who had missed the evacuation when the cave flooded. Nobody knew the four workers were missing. All four of them were soon brought to safety.
By now international attention to the incident had brought volunteers from across the world and rescue specialists from the US Air Force. The families of the children and the whole of Mae Sai offered prayers to gods and some well known Buddhist monks from Myanmar arrived to join their anxious neighbours.
Ten days after the children were trapped inside the cave, Stanton and Volanthen found them sitting safely on higher ground 1.6 km inside the cave system. "You are very strong, very strong," Stanton told them. "Can we go outside? We are hungry." the children responded. Volanthen did a motivational exercise for the footballers to keep their morale high.
The whole of Thailand celebrated the news, thanking the thousands of rescue personnel involved in the mission. The mother of one of the children made a football-shaped cake for her son. But the job wasn't done. The Thai Navy Seals said they would take over, but nobody had a clue how to get the children out. A Thai military doctor was sent with stocks of food to stay with the children.
The depth of water inside the cave, strong current and piles of diving cylinders and massive equipment posed tremendous challenges to the rescue team. They considered two options - drill into the cave from above or sedate the children and dive them out. Stanton and Volanthen, who were private individuals who did cave diving as a weekend hobby with a skill no special forces in the world had, decided to bring in Australian anesthesiologist Richard Harris and a special team of cave divers, including Australian cave explorer Craig Challen.
Ferrying the children
On Day 14, Dr Harris and Challen swam to the children. "Nobody had done it before," says Dr Harris about ferrying the children out under sedation by a diving team. All the foreign specialists knew if something went wrong they would end up in Thai jails. Dr Harris, who found inspiration from his cardiovascular surgeon-father, a generous doctor, went ahead with the plan. Besides Stanton and Volanthen, the new team had six Americans, five Australians and Chinese each and six rope specialists of different nationalities.
On Day 16, Dr Harris dived out of the cave with the first child. It took three hours to bring out the sedated child who was breathing from a cylinder attached to the front of his body. By the end of the day, four children had been brought to the safety of the outside world. It would take two more days to bring the remaining children.
"It wasn't possible for one team or one nation to do the rescue," says Stanton, who along with others was showered with gratitude by the parents of the junior footballers. "I think I hold a great pride in what we did," he adds. Dr Harris, whose father died on the last day of the rescue mission, said about himself: "Last to be chosen for cricket, first to be chosen for cave rescue." The Mae Sai district erected a diver's statue in the village near the caves, which were completely submerged a few days after the rescue operation ended. A few more weeks later the entire town was submerged.
The Rescue, which uses special effects and animation to retell the drama, even commissioned actual divers to re-enact some scenes. The directors skillfully choose from the vast amount of archival footage available from sources like television to remarkable effect.
"The film crafts well-rounded portraits of key figures who put their lives at risk for what appeared to be a lost cause," says TIFF Docs programmer Thom Powers. "We learn the backstories of these divers, many of whom grew up as loners worrying their families with their peculiar cave hobby. In Thailand, they had to invent new techniques on the spot and navigate complicated political dynamics under a ticking clock before all hope would expire," adds Powers.