Editor’s note: The contributor is a member of a Church of Christ in San Antonio. We have used a pseudonym for her name and her son’s name to maintain security requirements.
Based on an account by Diane Roffee
SAN ANTONIO — We all pray for our children’s safety, but for me it became very personal once again recently.
As the world watched and prayed for the Wild Boars soccer players who, with a coach, had become trapped in an extensive cave system in Northern Thailand, the rescue took an unexpected turn for me. My son, Todd, was one of the hundreds of emergency workers who rushed against time to find, stabilize, and bring out the twelve boys and their assistant coach. The cave exit had become blocked on June 23 after seasonal rains that came early raised the water level.
Todd, who is a para-rescue jumper (PJ) in the US Air Force, is a member of a 30-person team stationed in Okinawa, Japan. They deployed to Thailand as part of the effort. It involved skilled personnel from around the world, all working together as a team. Todd is a certified paramedic, dive master, jump master, and is qualified in mountain rescues. He said this extraction was the most complex such emergency effort in history.
As you may recall from news reports, the Tham Luang cave network was initially too dangerous to allow diving operations. The monsoons had turned the passages into raging rivers of mud that produced strong currents with zero visibility. Todd and others initially searched through the jungle for alternate entrances into the cave, and then they cleared a path to be used for drilling operations.
But when the rain let up, rescuers began to pump water out of the cave system. Although there were setbacks along the way, the pumps succeeded in lowering the water levels so much that the PJs could change the focus to finding the soccer team.
Todd ran guidelines through the passages and was involved in the diving efforts to replenish air tanks in the cave. The world got a sobering idea of the extreme danger at one point. The news broke that, during one air tank placement run, Saman Kunan, a former Thai Navy Seal, had lost his life when he ran out of air while swimming underwater.
Nevertheless, as the effort went on, it became obvious that the right people with the right skills had come to this right place at this right time. One of the few health care workers in the world qualified in cave rescues is an anesthesiologist. The Thai government expedited one medic’s license so he could practice in Thailand, enabling him to reduce the boys’ and their coach’s anxiety, thus keeping them and the divers safe during the most terrifying parts of the extraction.
According to Todd, the exodus proceeded through the waters of several chambers. The first one extended to two kilometers and included the sandbar where the soccer team had been surviving for nearly two weeks.
Todd was in charge of chamber two, which he described as a large boulder field with many drop-offs and cliffs requiring rappelling and traversing on zip-line ropes. Once the boys and the coach left the sandbar and got to Todd, he assessed their medical conditions, adjusted the masks and oxygen levels and secured them onto medical rescue litters. Eventually carrying them on litters, the chamber two team then traversed the rock obstacles and hoisted each boy and the coach up and down through the rugged, dark and confined spaces.
On Sunday morning, July 8, the news broke that the first boys were coming out. When asked how he was doing that day, Todd texted back: “In a lot of pain, sore, feet raw, legs bleeding … but I dragged four living kids out of the cave today.” The teams worked for two days to get the rest of the trapped teammates to the surface.
Todd said it got dicey at the end. On the third day of rescue, a main pump that was keeping the water levels low in the cave failed. Just after the last Wild Boar and the coach were passed through, the water levels began to rise rapidly. Since Todd was in charge of the chamber, he accounted for all of his team members and was the last one to leave. By the time he turned to go, the water was only within an inch or two of the top of the passageways. In some spots, he had to get enough air and then swim underwater for a while to exit.
This effort lives up to the US Air Force Para-rescue motto, “That Others May Live.” As a mom, I was very proud of Todd but still concerned for his safety. The team’s loved ones, the rescuers’ families, many others in many countries, and I did the only thing we could do: spend lots of time in prayer for our loved ones and everyone involved in the evacuation.
It is amazing what can be accomplished when people unite in purpose. As I ponder the ways that God works, I can’t help thinking that the relief and joy that most people felt when the trapped survivors were rescued must be similar to what our heavenly Father feels every time that one soul’s air holds out until he is saved for eternity.