“The first time you go in, it’s obviously quite intimidating.”
Langley’s Erik Brown was describing the first time he and members of his team – professional cave divers and dive instructors – plunged into the rushing brown waters of the Tham Luang cave system in northern Thailand for a rescue mission in the summer of 2018.
Brown was one of the featured speakers at the Fraser Valley Real Estate Board’s (FVREB) three-day annual conference and trade show, held at the Cascades Convention Centre in Langley. Brown spoke on Friday, Feb. 7, the last day of the event.
While he emphasized the technical aspects and the safety precautions that go into any cave dive, Brown told the crowd that, ultimately, he had become a diver for because it was enjoyable, a sport.
The conditions in the cave were far beyond what you would endure on a recreational or training dive, he said.
“Water that you can’t see through, it’s like coffee,” said Brown. “Currents so strong that it was pulling the guys’ masks off.”
But as one of a small number of people in Thailand with experience in difficult cave dives, Brown said he wanted to take part. The Thai Navy divers who were going in already were determined to try to rescue the 12 young soccer players, aged 11 to 16, and their 25-year-old coach, who had become trapped in the distant reaches of the cave by sudden monsoon rains.
“I’d rather I go in than them, because we have the training, we have the risk assessment,” Brown said.
The boys had been trapped for six days before Brown, who owns a diving business in Thailand, heard about the incident. He arrived in northern Thailand at the cave on day eight, and at that time, he had no idea whether it would be a rescue mission, or a mission to recover bodies – something he had taken part in before.
“It was quite emotional,” Brown said.
But less than six hours after he and other members of his team arrived, the Thai Navy SEALs reached the boys, and discovered they were all still alive.
Brown revealed that the SEALs had been laying guide ropes as they went into the cave. Their last rope had just 10 meters left in it when the divers emerged and found the trapped soccer team.
If they hadn’t found the boys, as far into the cave system as they had already penetrated, they very well might have given up, Brown said.
“This whole thing was 10 metres away from not happening,” he said.
Brown spoke of the huge army of people necessary to pull off the rescue – eventually there were 9,000 people outside the cave, including thousands of Thai police, military from Thailand, the U.S., Australia, and other countries, professional divers from Britain and Australia, and thousands of local volunteers.
A temporary city essentially sprang up around the cave mouth, said Brown.
“There was medical tents, there was hair cut tents, there was a McDonalds there,” he said.
The Thai government flew in hundreds of SCUBA tanks even before they knew if it would be possible to bring out the children.
Finally, they asked Brown and other divers on his team to go in as part of a preparation team.
Water levels had been reduced by pumping, and several divers had already reached the children, but the narrow passages were treacherous.
He recounted running into a diver who was ahead of him, but who had gotten stuck in a narrow passage. Then the diver behind Brown ran into him – and for a moment, until the jam cleared, he had to think about being stuck between two other divers, deep underground, none of them with the ability to turn around.
Two out of the six people on his team quit after the first day, Brown said.
Saman Kunan, a 37-year-old former Thai Navy SEAL died shortly after Brown made his earliest dives.
“Coming back to that news was quite heartbreaking,” he said of the death.
But it seemed to make the Thai rescuers even more determined to save the boys, to ensure that Kunan’s death had not been in vain, he said.
The team that eventually did much of the work was small – Thai divers took part, but several other foreign governments deemed it too dangerous for their military divers, said Brown.
“That left the 13 of us, foreign divers,” he said.
The addition of some world-renowned experts in cave diving from the United Kingdom provided expertise, and they began to work on a plan.
There had been a number of ideas to get the soccer team out, Brown said, including drilling down through the mountain from the top, to the notorious plan floated by Tesla head Elon Musk about using a miniature submarine.
But eventually, an expert cave diver who was also a doctor and anesthesiologist came up with the final plan – sedate each of the kids and take them out one at a time.
It was a risky plan, for both the kids and the rescue divers.
“At that point, you’re so emotionally invested, you don’t care what they say,” Brown said. “You’re 100 per cent in.”
The team tested the face masks they would use on 12-year-olds in nearby pools.
“If that mask leaks, it’s game over,” said Brown.
Not only would the children be sedated – mostly with ketamine, because it does not affect breathing too much – but they would be restrained.
“For the kids’ safety and ours, the kids were actually hog tied,” he said. The fear was that they might wake up in the middle of the cave and pull off their masks, or the masks of the rescuers.
Brown’s job was to make his way to a mid-point section of the cave where there was an open chamber with air.
As the divers brought the kids out, he had spare air tanks – and syringes full of more ketamine.
The sedatives only lasted 45 minutes, and Brown and others had to give the children extra doses to keep them under for the up to four hours it would take to get all the way to the cave exit. He had one day to learn how to give an injection.
It was the children themselves who decided what order they would leave the cave.
“They said the first kids were the ones who lived the furthest away from the cave, because they had the longest bike rides home,” Brown said.
“As most people know, nothing ever goes to plan,” Brown said.
On the first day, he and a partner set out to their appointed position, only for his partner to briefly lose his way in the first five metres of the dive.
Brown arrived alone, thinking he had been behind his friend the whole way. He had to consider attempting to try to find and rescue his friend, or stick to the mission.
He stayed at his checkpoint, and eventually, his friend turned up, having thought Brown was the one who had gone missing.
“We exchanged a few words,” Brown said, deadpan.
He described seeing the first rescued child brought to their checkpoint, and the moment of fear at seeing how slow the diver was moving. They weren’t sure the child was even alive, until they saw bubbles coming from his mask.
Over three days, the relay of divers got all the children and their coach – hogtied and sedated just like the boys – out of the cave.
Brown and the other divers then stayed to get out the four Thai Navy SEALs who had stayed for days with the boys. They were the last to leave, and they barely got out, as the rains had started again and two of the three pumps keeping the water levels down broke.
When he emerged, the kids had been taken to hospital, and the outside was curiously quiet, Brown said.
He wouldn’t actually meet any of the kids – beyond of injecting them with sedatives – until September that year, when the boys and the volunteers – all 9,000 of them – were hosted at a banquet by Thailand’s king in his royal palace in Bangkok.
Brown said he has now told the story of the rescue – of the teamwork and determination – at least 1,000 times, but he’s not tired of it.
“I think sometimes the world needs a good story,” he said.
Brown’s speech was part of a three-day conference by the association of realtors, which also included speeches by athlete and activist Rick Hansen, political columnist Vaughn Palmer, and former Fort McMurray fire chief Darby Allen.