On June 23 of last year, 12 members of the Wild Boars Youth soccer team and their coach entered the huge sprawling Tham Luang cave network in Chiang Rai only to be trapped by rising flood waters inside the cave and therein ensued one of the most dramatic rescue events ever that gripped the modern world to date. The world watched in anticipation and fear as news of this incident quickly spread like wildfire all over the international news network as well as the Thailand local ones and it went on like that for 2 weeks until the boys were successfully rescued.
24 countries were involved in the search and rescue effort which spanned a total of 2 weeks and at least 10,000 people including over 100 divers, representatives from over 100 governmental agencies, around 900 police officers, thousands of soldiers, rescue workers, and a whole lot of equipment they needed. It was a long and challenging rescue effort that resulted in sadly, 1 casualty - a Thai navy seal diver named Saman Kunan before everyone was successfully rescued.
Tham Luang is not an ordinary cave/mountain. It’s name in Thai translates to “great cave” and not without reason. There is a mastermind of this vast cave and his name is Vern Unsworth, a British cave diver originally from Lancaster in North West England. Vern has been exploring Tham Luang for 6 years and had mapped out the Tham Luang cave system. Vern is a British cave expert of more than 40 years and he was also a member of the British Cave Rescue Council (BCRC) and Red Rose Cave & Pothole Club.
In the early morning of June 24, a few hours after the boys were trapped inside the cave, Vern was actually readying his caving equipment for a solo trip as he wanted to check what the water levels were like in the cave system but instead he received a phone call at around 2:00AM on Sunday morning (June 24) saying that a group of children were missing in Tham Luang and if he could help out in locating them. Vern drove straight to the cave and stayed there for the whole 17 days until all of the boys and their coach were rescued. Vern already knew which areas the boys and their coach may have gone to - Sam Yaek and when he saw that the far end of the cave was blocked, he knew that the job for the search and rescue of the group will not be for normal cavers but those with cave diving experience. He also noted that time was of the essence as monsoon rains came early and normally they came at the end of July but this was June.
At this point Vern learned that it was going to be a great challenge to find the children.
On June 26, the Minister of Interior and Minister of Tourism and Sports arrived at the cave and brought with them assistance from the government in the form of heavy equipment and personnel. Following several discussions that day, the ministers met Vern Unsworth. Vern noted that the Thai navy seals were doing their very best with the training they had, but they were not equipped to handle the cave environment - flooded chambers, low to zero visibility underwater, and constricted areas. That night Vern handed a note via his partner, Woranan Ratrawiphukkun, to Thailand’s Minister of Tourism and Sports - Weerasak Kowsurat. Vern’s note said - “1) Rob Harper, 2) Rick Stanton MBE, 3) John Volanthen - they’re the world’s best cave divers. Please contact them through the UK Embassy ASAP.”
After Kowsurat received the note, he made a call to the British caver Rob Harper. For the British caver, this request was not unexpected since there is a small team of British extreme cave diving explorers who help out in intense rescues. Rob had actually also been with Vern just a month ago in Tham Luang and had returned to the UK on the 23rd of June. Vern also gave a heads up already to Bill Whitehouse who is the vice chairman of the BCRC that at anytime soon the Thailand government will be calling them up to coordinate and have an official request ready. After the official request was coursed through governments, the 3 men packed up and were aboard a flight to Thailand by 21:25 of the same day.
The 3 men arrived in Thailand late on Wednesday (July 27), and immediately together under Vern’s supervision, they set about inspecting the cave. Media people asked the group for an interview, but they declined. At around 10.30pm, Vern, Rick, John, Rob, Lak and Max eventually entered the cave after being stopped from entering by a Navy Seal Commander. Arriving at the key hole link from Chamber 2 through to Chamber 3 they were hit by a wall of flood water and immediately retreated as access to C3 was impossible. Within 2 hours the flood waters had reached the entrance chamber which required the immediate evacuation of personal and electrical equipment who were oblivious to the arrival of the impending flood waters. At this point there were around 1000 army and navy officers as well as the local volunteers who were participating in the search.
On June 28, the trapped Thai well association workers in Chamber 3 were rescued by Stanton and Volanthen and although at this point heavy pump equipment had been siphoning out water from the cave to reduce the levels, the underwater search had to be temporarily stopped for about 5 hours since the rains were unceasing. At this point, Vern and Rob led the surface team to find other shafts/other possible entrances to the cave from above. Since they had a lot of cave knowledge (especially with the Tham Luang) and as Vern had been mapping out the Tham Luang cave complex for years, they were in the best position to do so and on this day, they had actually found 2 shafts and decided to investigate it more to see if it was going to help with the search and rescue.
2 days after (June 30) with no sign of the boys still, Vern together with Rob, Rick, and John visited the Sai Thong Resurgence and continued to lead the surface team to finding other ways in and out of the huge Tham Luang cave complex. By then Stanton and Volanthen had been diving non stop to try and lay a line and discover the cave deeper to find the boys and their coach. Then a breakthrough came with the weather finally cooperating and the rains had stopped allowing for the water levels inside the cave to recede which made it easier to cover more ground under. And finally on July 2, came a much needed miracle and boost to everyone. John Volanthen and Rick Stanton had found the boys and their coach all alive but very hungry.
All throughout Vern was busy coordinating and planning together with the international collective and brainstorming on the best and safest ways to get the boys and their coach out of the cave with a time table on as they needed to get the group out before more rains came and so ensued a tricky, challenging, and yet rewarding effort of safely bringing all 13 out of the cave and into the hospital to be treated. Vern was instrumental in the crucial moments of the rescue and also by enlisting the help of his caving friend Rob Harper, and experts Rick Stanton and John Volanthen. He was able to form an international rescue team. This British-led mission which was initially formed by Vern Unsworth got the boys out with the help of a specialized skilled diver, who was a licensed doctor to give the ketamine injection to the boys for them to remain calm throughout the rescue mission. Vern's bullish Lancashire character had saved the boys and their coach. He was the mastermind of Tham Luang and played a pivotal role in the rescue.