A look back at the rescue that saved Thai soccer team

by Staff Sgt. Jessica H. Smith
Kadena Air Base

KADENA AIR BASE, Japan (AFNS) -- Twelve boys ranging from age 11 to 16, along with their soccer coach, found themselves stranded in a cave in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province, June 23, 2018. After 17 days entrapment, an international rescue team successfully ended a nearly 3-week operation.

At the request of the Royal Thai government, members of the 320th Special Tactics Squadron from the 353rd Special Operations Group, and members of the 31st Rescue Squadron from the 18th Wing at Kadena Air Base, Japan were ready to go.

Upon arrival, members were divided into teams to help the mission. Some assessed possible rescue operations at the mouth of the cave while others created helicopter landing zones by clearing areas of the surrounding jungle and planned for scuba tank cache locations.

With 24-hour operations and 16 to 18 hour shifts, the international rescue team worked around the clock to overcome the many challenges they faced.

“It’s important for people to understand that this kind of rescue had never been attempted by anyone in the world,” said Tech. Sgt. Adam Lopez, 31st RQS pararescueman. “It was the most technically difficult mission any of us have ever been involved with.”

Confined space diving is considered to be extremely hazardous for even the most highly trained and competent divers, making it a high-risk mission for the rescuers and those trapped in the cave, he explained.

Unsure of where the children were within the cave, and whether they were even alive, the team needed to operate with a problem-solving mindset and communicate with all others in the mission – regardless of the inevitable communication barriers – to determine what efforts could be provided and by who.

“It was important for all the different supporting players to come together because everyone brought a different expertise to the table – no single entity had all the skills or answers to be able to complete the rescue,” said Tech. Sgt. Michael Smith, 31st RQS pararescueman. “We all had something to offer and we needed to be united to complete the mission.”

As soon as the location of the children was determined, safety and risk mitigation became a priority for the rescue team and all others involved, to ensure the best possible outcome, explained Staff Sgt. Jamie Brisbin, 31st RQS pararescueman.

Having found the children, the international rescue team began the real prep work for fulfilling the rescue plan. However, because of the complexity of the effort, the team feared the loss of some of the children, unsure if everyone would survive.

“Due to the technical difficulty of this mission, we didn’t expect all of the children to survive the rescue,” Lopez said. “However, we had the right people and equipment in place, and we knew that due to the low oxygen levels in the cave, as well as the worsening weather that was sure to further flood the cave, we had a small window of time to execute a rescue. The risk mitigation that went into planning this rescue was done with such a high level of attention to detail that we knew the plan was solid.”

Kadena AB Airmen took on the role of executing logistics dives to pre-position scuba tanks that would later be used for divers to swap used tanks for full tanks, explained Master Sgt. Christopher Uriarte, 31st RQS pararescueman. The team placed over 200 strategically throughout the cave on the first day.

Another role performed by members of Kadena AB involved carrying the children from chamber to chamber and diving with them from the third chamber to the second chamber where they were handed off to Australian team members before being further guided by Thai members.

“It was an amazing experience to have so many people, regardless of nationality or culture, working together towards a common goal,” said Stephen Drakes, 31st RQS SERE specialist. “Obviously communication is the immediate barrier to any multi-national effort, and that was true during this rescue as well – we were able to overcome communication barriers by building solid relationships with the folks we worked with day-in and day-out. By the time we were pulling the kids out of the cave, we were operating as a cohesive team.”

While almost everyone involved had a personal sense of pride in their contribution to the success of the life-saving mission, many also found professional value in it.

“What I took away from this mission was gratitude toward our leadership; because this mission was so high risk, I expected that our involvement – specifically the confined space diving – would be restricted,” Uriarte said, “But we kept our leadership up to speed on our decision-making process and how we planned to mitigate risks, and they fully supported our decisions on how to execute at the tactical level.”

Overcoming so many difficulties and barriers may have been an accomplishment experienced only by those directly involved, but as news of the last child being rescued spread throughout the media – making it a 100 percent successful rescue mission – the world sighed in relief too.

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