Tham Luang Cave Rescuers at Tanglin

Tham Luang Cave Rescuers at Tanglin
Tham Luang Cave Rescuers at Tanglin

On Wednesday, 20 February the TTS Foundation was delighted to host an evening with Joshua Morris and Noppadon Uppakham (Taw), who played a pivotal role in rescuing the Thai children's football team in the Tham Luang Cave in July 2018.

Josh is from Salt Lake City and grew up hiking, biking and skiing on the surrounding mountains. In the early 1990s he began rock climbing, instantly becoming addicted to the physical and mental challenges it provided. In 1999 he moved to northern Thailand, an area littered with caves and an amazing playground to learn and develop his climbing and caving skills.

In December 2002, Josh founded Chiang Mai Rock Climbing Adventures (CMRCA) and has been living in Chiang Mai for over 19 years. His brother-in law Taw is chief instructor at CMRCA.

Both captivated the audience with their experience of what it was like to be a key part of the first rescue of its kind in the world. Despite several seemingly impossible challenges during the rescue mission, total commitment was given by the rescue team to get the boys out. The stories from inside the cave were hugely moving and affecting.

On 23 June 2018, the boy's football team ('the Wild Boars') entered Tham Luang Cave for an afternoon adventure that went wrong – they were trapped by rising waters and ended up stuck deep in the cave for nine days before being discovered.

British caver, Vern Unsworth, who lives in Chiang Rai and has detailed knowledge of the cave worked hard for two days to find the boys. On June 26, he advised the Thai government to seek expert dive assistance from the British Cave Rescue Council (BCRC).

Taw was called by the Chiang Rai rescue teams to help find the boys on the very first day that they were reported lost in the cave. Taw and his team entered the cave with Vern and went all the way to the T-Junction.When it became clear that a dive rescue would be necessary, Taw and his team became part of the search for alternate entrances into the cave.

On 2 July, after going through narrow passages and muddy waters, British divers John Volanthen and Richard Stanton found the group alive. However, finding the boys was just the beginning, the real rescue (getting the boys out) was about to begin.

Numerous options were discussed, including teaching the boys basic diving skills. The team mapped out the cave and identified dry areas, diving depths and equipment needed. Water was diverted out of the cave, a stone diversion dam was built upstream and pipes were used to siphon water past any sinkholes to reduce the levels to ensure a dive would be possible. Additionally, famous monks visited the cave to pray for the safe return of the boys offering incense and flowers and even a piglet and rabbit that roamed free in the cave.

By 6 July the urgency of the rescue operation intensified. With the monsoon season approaching, the divers were concerned that if the water levels were to rise by just one metre it would become impossible for them to swim against the strong current. There were also fears that the level of oxygen needed for normal functioning was dropping in the boy's chamber.

At several meetings throughout the day, Josh played a key role in liaising between the international team of experts and the Thai authorities, ensuring everyone had a common understanding of the situation and how they could move the operation forward. From that point, Josh acted as the chief liaison between the Thai government and armed forces, the US Airforce PJs and the BCRC ensuring that various teams and organisations were on the same page. Josh also assisted the governor of Chiang Rai in drafting press releases and other key communication issues.

On 7 July, upon hearing that a complicated rescue was needed after the dive portion was complete, Josh brought Taw and the CMRCA team into the headquarters where they were tasked with setting up a belay system that would be used in the first two dry chambers – the exact same system Tanglin students learn on the Year 10 trip to Thailand. The divers practised in a swimming pool with similar size children without any diving experience.

From 8 to 10 July the daring attempt to rescue the boys which made international headlines ensued. Thirteen international cave divers, including anaesthetist Dr Richard Harris, based themselves at different points along seven chambers. The solution to sedate the boys was decided earlier in the rescue when Rick and John dove into the cave to find four water workers installing pumps had been trapped by the flood. During the short "snatch rescue" that they performed, they found that the adults fought and kicked and were very challenged by the experience. This led Rick and John to realise they would need to sedate the boys for their own safety and that of the rescuers.

The boys were dressed in a wetsuit, full face mask and were sedated to prevent them from panicking on their way out. Their hands were tied to prevent getting caught on the rocks. Each boy had his name written on his hand and received medical checks along the way.

The boys were manoeuvred out one at a time by the divers. Once in Chamber 3, they were passed, slid and zip-lined along a chain out of the cave by Taw and the CMRCA team.

Over three days, all 12 boys, aged 11-17 years and their assistant coach were successfully rescued from the cave. The boy's families gathered at the cave entrance and Josh helped to translate as they gave thanks to the rescue team for the lives saved.

Josh has been formally recognised by both the Royal Thai Government and the US state department for his courage and skill and Taw received a formal award from the Royal Thai Government.

In an interview with Josh and Taw, we asked about their experience and how it has impacted their lives today.

You must have been exhausted. What was your motivation?

Taw – I have been in a situation where I myself had to be rescued. I wanted to volunteer my skills to help support this rescue attempt.

Josh – My background is in leadership, organisation and communication. It wasn't until the 'big meeting' on 6 July that I realised my ability to make a positive impact. I knew that there was a sense of urgency and that I could play a liaising role between the international and Thai teams.

You talked about the resilience of the boys and the rescuers. Why do you think the boys remained so calm?

Josh – I think that having an adult, with the mindset of a coach was invaluable. I understand that he helped the boys remain calm through meditation in what was a cold, damp environment where they lacked food and their health was deteriorating. The boys also kept busy attempting to dig their way out of the cave.

How did you feel knowing that the monsoon rains were coming?

We knew that we couldn't wait until the monsoon season had passed. The risks to the boys were lack of oxygen, increased CO2, lack of food, pneumonia or drowning. So, we knew the dive needed to happen and we needed to act quickly.

Was there anything that you feared?

Taw – We knew we had to be ready for anything as the boys came out.

Josh – I had no doubt the rescue operation would be successful, until the twelfth boy was coming out and the diver lost the guide rope, so they didn't appear when we were expecting them to. Fortunately, the diver found an electrical cable that had been laid before the cave flooded which led him back to Chamber 4. It was a reminder that every dive was an individual rescue operation.

What was it like to receive the first boy?

Taw – I was overjoyed. We cried as each boy exited the cave. Although the boys were sedated, my teammate kept talking to them all the way. I'm happy to know that I could help someone. It still stays with me.

In hindsight, what were the biggest challenges?

Josh – The lack of a central command structure and therefore communication between different groups. There were complications of communicating among different cultures and languages. At times, there were too many people on site who did not have experience specific to the mission. Early in the rescue it wasn't always clear who was in the cave.

How did the local community come together?

Josh - There was an amazing enduro motorbike club which offered to drive the rescue team to different parts of the mountain. Additionally, at the temple camps, meals were made by the community, laundry was done, and massages were given for free.

Tell us more about the legend of the sleeping lady where the cave is located?

When asking locals in Chiang Rai about Doi Nang Non – the Mountain of the Sleeping Lady, they tell the tale of a beautiful princess who fell in love with a stable boy. Their love was forbidden, and the stable boy was killed by the King's soldiers. The princess was so distraught she took her own life. It is believed that her body became the mountain and the water that flows through the caves during the wet season is her blood. Following the rescue operation, many locals gathered to pray to the princess and to seek her forgiveness for the intrusion of the rescue.

How has your experience impacted on you?

Taw – Everyone wants to know me now!

Josh – The rescue has reminded me of why we do what we do. Spending time pushing ourselves outside our comfort zone builds confidence and competence, often for situations that we have not yet experienced. This is what our company is all about. It has also allowed me to share a lesson of sacrifice with my daughter so she understands what it means to act in service of others. The entire experience has been extremely powerful and humbling.

On Josh and Taw's talks, Craig Considine, CEO said: "What a wonderful example of multi-disciplinary teams coming together for a positive outcome."

Student, Chelsea in Year 12 added: "The talk has been truly inspiring. I remember keeping up with the rescue attempts on television at the time, so it was fascinating to hear an insider's account."