Coach Ek the unlikely stateless hero of Thai cave drama

Coach Ek has been lauded for keeping the young footballers – aged 11-16 – calm as starvation loomed in the dark

MAE SAI, Thailand: Schooled as a monk and now hailed a hero, football coach Ekkapol Chantawong is one of several stateless members of the “Wild Boars”, a team whose survival after days trapped in a flooded Thai cave fixated a country that does not recognise them as citizens.


Coach Ek, the 25-year-old who was among the last to emerge from the cave on Tuesday, has been lauded for keeping the young footballers – aged 11-16 – calm as starvation loomed in the dark.

He was the only adult with the boys when they entered the cave on June 23 until they were found nine days later by British divers on a muddy bank deep inside the cave complex.

As he awaited his turn to undertake the dangerous exit from the Tham Luang complex, Thais on the outside celebrated him as a modest, devout and duty-bound member of the Mae Sai community.

“From all the parents, please take care of all the children. Don’t blame yourself,” said a letter to him from the boys’ relatives released July 7.

In reply he scrawled a note apologising to the parents, and vowing to take “the very best care of the kids.”

The touching note won the hearts of the Thai public – a group to which he is yet to officially belong.

The UNHCR says Thailand is home to around 480,000 stateless people.

Many are from nomadic hill tribes and other ethnic groups who have for centuries lived around Mae Sai, the heart of ‘Golden Triangle’ – a lawless wedge of land bisecting Thailand, Myanmar, Laos and China.

‘He is stateless. No nationality. No country’

Among the stateless are Ek and three of the boys who were trapped in the cave alongside him – Dul, Mark and Tee – the founder of the Wild Boars club Nopparat Khanthavong told AFP.

“To get nationality is the biggest hope for the boys… in the past these boys have problems travelling to play matches outside of Chiang Rai,” he added, because of travel restrictions that accompanies their lack of status.

Without passports they are unlikely to be able to take up the invite from Manchester United FC to visit next season.

“They also can’t become professional football players because they don’t have the (correct) status,” he said, adding the process has begun to try to get them nationality.

There are hopes the boys’ ordeal will lead to a change of policy.

“The issue of the boys in the cave should give Thailand a wake up call… to grant the stateless nationality,” said Pornpen Khongkachonkiet of Amnesty International Thailand.

Coach Ek, who is ethnic Tai Lue, is yet to give his version of the remarkable events of the last few weeks.

A novice monk for several years from the age of 10, Ek left the Buddhist clergy before becoming a full monk in order to look after his grandmother in Mae Sai.

He later became a coach with the Wild Boars.

He is fond of meditation, trekking and the outdoors life, according to monk Ekkapol Chutinaro who roomed with his namesake as a novice.

“We would trek to the jungle, he would always bring a thumb-sized parcel chilli paste and sticky rice and we would stay there for a couple of days,” he recalled of his friend.

As a football coach he is regarded as a generous and patient teacher willing to help even the least skilled kids.

But as a citizen of nowhere he cannot yet gain his full coaching qualifications.

“He is stateless. No nationality. No country,” added Wild Boars’ founder Nopparat. (AFP)

After heroic rescue, cave-diving Australian doctor mourns father’s death

The father of a cave-diving Australian doctor died on Wednesday, shortly after his son played a key role in rescuing a boys’ soccer team trapped in a cave for two weeks in northern Thailand.

Anaesthetist Richard Harris, who did the final medical checks of the 12 trapped boys and their coach, was among the divers who successfully ended on Tuesday a mission that had gripped the attention of the world.

“Early this morning Harry’s father passed away here in Adelaide … after they’d all come out of the cave,” said Andrew Pearce, of rescue service MedSTAR in the Australian city, where Harris, also known as Harry, is a specialist.

“It was a complete, unexpected shock,” Pearce, the organisation’s clinical services director, told reporters. He gave no cause of death or the age of Harris’ father, Jim.

“Harry put the mission first…now he’s having to come to deal with what actually happened overnight,” Pearce added.

“You’ve given your all and then you find out the sad news about your father, who’s your best mate. That’s really, really tough.” On Wednesday, Harris declined to comment to the Australian newspaper in Thailand.

Australian police told Reuters Harris had declined to speak to media and directed requests for comment to the country’s foreign affairs department, which did not immediately respond to queries.

Harris played a pivotal role in the rescue effort mounted after days of strategising how to get the boys out, assessing their fitness for the perilous journey back to the outside.

“His unique skillset as a specialist doctor and his extensive experience as a cave diver were quintessential to the success of this operation,” Major Alex Rubin, of the Australian Defence Force, told reporters in Chiang Rai.

Australian Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull, in a video he released of a conversation with Harris, offered his condolences and congratulations on the rescue’s success.

“No worries,” Harris is heard replying. “The big heroes in this are the children and the four Thai Navy SEALS who were looking after them. They are the toughest blokes and kids I have ever had the privilege to meet.” (Reuters)

Water pumps failed just after last boy escaped

The rescue operation to free the last of the 12 boys and their football coach from a Thailand cave could have been a disaster, divers have revealed, with water pumps draining the area failing just hours after the last boy had been evacuated.

Divers and rescue workers were still more than 1.5km inside the cave clearing up equipment when the main pump failed, leading water levels to rapidly increase, three Australian divers involved in the operation told the Guardian on Wednesday, in the first detailed account of the mission to be published.

The trio, stationed at “chamber three”, a base inside the cave, said they heard screaming and saw a rush of head torches from deeper inside the tunnel as workers scrambled to reach dry ground.

“The screams started coming because the main pumps failed and the water started rising,” said one of the divers, speaking anonymously because he is not authorised to comment.

“All these headlights start coming over the hill and the water was coming … It was noticeably rising.”

The remaining 100 workers inside the cave frantically rushed to the exit and were out less than an hour later, including the last three Thai navy Seals and medic who had spent much of the past week keeping vigil with the trapped boys.

‘Unfriendly operation’

Much of last week was spent clearing the 1.5km path from chamber three to the entrance. When the Australian divers arrived on 30 June, “the complexity and scale [of the cave] was unknown”, said commander Glen McEwen, of the Australian federal police at a briefing on Wednesday.

The Australian divers, carrying 46kg of diving gear, were among the teams ferrying radios, air cylinders and other equipment into the third chamber.

Six Australian police divers and one navy diver spent 75 hours in that cave, McEwen said, “moving approximately 20 tonnes of equipment through the caving system”.

The equipment included industrial-size pumps, oxygen and air tanks, medical supplies and food.

“They did dive and as you can appreciate at that time there were no pumps in operation,” McEwen said. “So it was an unfriendly operation, it was narrow, it was flooded.”

The Australians were unable to go further because their gear was too large: going beyond chamber three required passing through a hole less than a metre wide.

The specialist cave divers and the boys wore smaller equipment such as rebreathers and tanks at their sides, rather than on their backs.

The divers compared parts of the journey to moving through the S-bend of a toilet. They said there were three main sumps on the path to chamber three, about 10 to 20 metres long, separated by up to 300m of dry ground.

McEwen said the Thai-led operation was the most complex the police had been involved with. “It’s amazing what a human being can do,” he said. “They were extraordinary people doing extraordinary things.”

They lost 2kg during the ordeal

Doctors treating the rescued boys and their coach in the nearby city of Chiang Rai said on Wednesday that each had lost an average 2kg during the ordeal but were generally in good health.

The parents of the first four boys freed will be able to meet them on Wednesday provided they wear protective suits and stand 2-metres away. Relatives of the nine others rescued will need to see them through a window until doctors can rule out infections. (Guardian)

Five rescues that defied the odds

The dramatic mission to save 12 boys and their football coach from a flooded cave in Thailand captivated global attention and sparked an outpouring of joy when the young team emerged safe and sound.

Here are some other amazing rescues that also ended happily despite enormous obstacles.

French cave, 1999

On November 22, 1999, rescuers reached seven men who had been trapped in a cave system in southwest France for 10 days.

The men, all experienced cavers, became trapped in the caves at Vitarelles when heavy storms caused flooding, cutting them off from the exits.

The unprecedented rescue mission riveted France, with experts drilling multiple shafts into the rock in a bid to find the men.

They eventually reached them after squeezing into one of the shafts and following an underground river.

The men had carefully rationed their food and still had enough water and lighting gas for two days when they were rescued. All were in good health.

Russian submarine, 2005

The seven-man crew of a Russian Priz mini-submarine were running out of air after three days trapped under water when they were finally rescued.

Their submarine became entangled in marine debris on August 4, 2005, and the Russian crew was powerless to move from the position around 190 metres (625 feet) below the ocean surface.

The incident immediately drew comparisons with Russia’s Kursk submarine accident five years earlier, which ended in tragedy with the deaths of all 118 crew.

But the Priz crew were rescued after a British undersea robot cut the vessel free.

Russian President Vladimir Putin awarded medals to the British team who rescued the submarine crew and Moscow announced it would purchase several of the type of underwater robots used in the rescue.

Chilean miners, 2010

The plight of 33 men trapped in a Chilean mine 600 metres (2,000 feet) underground after a rock collapse on August 5, 2010 captured international headlines.

The men had been virtually given up for dead when a probe sent down through a narrow borehole struck lucky, 17 days later.

The men had been surviving on dwindling rations, with just 15 cans of tuna between them, said survivor Franklin Lobos.

“We ate a teaspoon of it every 24 hours, then every 48 hours and finally we were eating a teaspoon every 72 hours. It was horrible.”

Even after the men were located and supplies were sent to them, it took weeks before rescuers were finally able to bring the miners to the surface.

In all, their ordeal lasted nearly 70 days.

Miners in Peru, 2012

Nine miners, including a father and son, spent seven days trapped underground after a cave-in in southern Peru on April 7, 2012.

Rescuers led the men out wrapped in blankets and wearing dark glasses to protect their eyes after so many days without sunlight.

The rescue operation at the illegal mine was hampered by fears of additional collapses as rescuers dug through rock and soil.

Huddled in an opening 250 metres (800 feet) underground, the men joked and exercised to pass the time and stay positive.

“This moment, it’s like being reborn,” said one of the rescued men after a tearful reunion with his family.

German cave, 2014

More than 700 emergency personnel worked to rescue Johann Westhauser after he sustained a serious head injury deep inside a German cave system on June 8, 2014.

The 52-year-old was with two other people when a rockfall caused the head injury. One made the hours-long walk back to the surface to raise the alarm, while the other stayed with Westhauser.

His injury made it impossible for him to move, and rescue workers and medical professionals from five countries worked to medically evacuate him from a spot 1,000 metres (3,300 feet) below ground.

His rescuers battled dangerous conditions and near-freezing temperatures as they methodically negotiated a treacherous network of tunnels and chambers, underground lakes and ice-cold waterfalls.

He was eventually hauled out of the cave system on a stretcher 11 days after being injured, in an operation local officials said had seemed “simply impossible.” (AFP)

World soccer toasts Thai cave boys’ rescue

With victory dedications, soccer shirts and offers of tours and match tickets, some of soccer’s biggest names are cheering the rescue of 12 Thai boys and their coach from a flooded cave, a drama as gripping as the World Cup now at the semi-final stage.

The last of the “Wild Boars” football team and their coach were brought out of the cave late on Tuesday after a dangerous rescue that unleashed joy across Thailand, and earned the boys celebrity plaudits from Italy and Spain to England and Brazil.

France midfielder Paul Pogba called them “heroes of the day” and dedicated to them his country’s 1-0 win over Belgium, a victory that catapulted Les Bleus into the World Cup final for the first time in 12 years.

“Well done boys, you are so strong,” Pogba said on Twitter.

England are determined to meet France and will play Croatia in the other semi-final in Moscow on Wednesday.

Two members of the Three Lions squad, defender Kyle Walker and goalkeeper Jack Butland offered to send kit to the Thai boys.

Walker Tweeted a picture of one of the boys in the cave, who wears a red England shirt, and asked where he can send them jerseys.

“Amazing news that all of the Thai kids are out of the cave safely!” he said.

Former Real Madrid, Inter Milan and Brazil striker Ronaldo had earlier urged the boys to be strong while awaiting rescue, as did Austrian defender Christian Fuchs, who won the English Premier League title with Thai-owned Leicester City.

‘A REAL HERO’ Italian club AS Roma called the successful mission “the best football news of the summer”, and offered its condolences to the family of former navy diver Samarn Kunan, who died during the rescue last week, after delivering the boys oxygen. It said he was “a real hero”.

A Thai health official on Wednesday said most of the boys, who are aged 11-16, had lost some weight but were in good condition and showed no signs of stress, despite more than two weeks trapped deep in the cave.

The boys were in quarantine in hospital on Wednesday, where they will remain for a week for tests.

That means they will not be taking soccer’s world governing body FIFA up on its offer to attend Sunday’s World Cup final in Russia.

“We will look into finding a new opportunity to invite the boys to a FIFA event to share with them a moment of communion and celebration,” it said.

But the “Wild Boars” will get their chance to go on tour once fit.

The foundation of Spanish side Barcelona has invited them to attend an international tournament of the club’s academy, and watch a match at the Nou Camp stadium.

The boys and those who saved them can also look forward to a trip this season to the “Theatre of Dreams”, otherwise known as Old Trafford, the home of English giants Manchester United.

“We would love to welcome the team from Wild Boars Football Club and their rescuers,” the club Tweeted.

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