2018 was a remarkable year, filled with unforgettable stories alternately exhilarating and heartbreaking. For me the most gripping and compelling one took place last summer in a cave in Thailand.
A birthday party gone wrong
I’m sure you remember: Saturday, June 23, a boys soccer team called the Wild Boars made an after-practice excursion to a cave called Tham Luang to celebrate one of the boys’ birthdays. They left their bikes and soccer cleats and set off with flashlights, water and snacks brought along for the occasion.
Once inside, the monsoon rains suddenly began in earnest, flooding the cave and sending the boys and their twenty-five-year-old coach scrambling further and further into the interior. According to an official 1986 survey the ledge they ended up on is 2.5 miles inside and a mile below the surface.
They stayed there, eventually running out of food, water and light. They survived by sipping the condensation from the cave walls. Coach Ake, a former monk, taught the boys meditation techniques – helping them stay calm and use as little air as possible – and had them lie still to conserve their energy.
On the tenth day, July 2, with little hope of discovering anything but bodies, a pair of British divers, John Volanthen and Rick Stanton, found them all – emaciated, but alive.
Volanthen called out, “How many of you?” One of the boys (the only one who speaks English) answered, “Thirteen.”
“Thirteen? Brilliant!” replied Volanthen, incredulous.
That kicked off a rescue mission by an incredible international team utilizing the muscle, skill, brainpower and raw courage of experts from around the world:
100,000 people participated, including 2,000 soldiers, 200 divers and representatives from 100 government agencies from places including Finland, Britain, China, Australia and the United States.
Apollo 13 underground
Like any father, I tried to imagine what the boys’ parents were going through as they watched, waited and prayed for a miracle. As it unfolded, I told Heidi:
“We’re watching Apollo 13* underground.”
The operation was enormously complicated. To begin with, few of the boys could swim. Deep within the cave, the water was so cold that the highly trained, experienced Thai SEAL divers battled hypothermia and rested during 12-hour shifts. Lacking appropriate helmets for underground diving in current so swift it tore the masks off their faces, the SEALs taped flashlights to their improvised headgear.
The boys and Coach Ake wrote notes to their families and loved ones. Drawing hearts and smiley faces on notepaper, they told their parents and siblings they loved them and not to worry. They listed the foods they wanted when they got home, including fried chicken and pork. One even joked: “Teacher, please don’t give us too much homework!”
By the time the rescue itself began the oxygen level where the boys were sheltering had dipped to 15 percent. At 12 percent the air begins to turn deadly. Extracting the boys required long stretches underwater, keeping them submerged for around 40 minutes at a time. They were all given anti-anxiety medication to keep them calm while the divers floated them, tethered to rescuers in front and behind.
Incredibly, against all odds, all twelve boys and their coach made it out alive. The last ones would not emerge until July 10, two weeks after they entered Tham Luang. It was a stunning success, thanks to the skill and bravery of that extraordinary team.
But there was a cost to the mission beyond the money, equipment and manpower: On July 6 Saman Gunan, a retired Thai Navy SEAL who voluntarily left his airport security job to help, died in an underwater passageway. Some Thai officials believe he ran out of air in his tanks; others that he succumbed to hypothermia. He was only 38 years old.
Whatever the cause of death, one thing is certain:
He gave his life so others might live.
For me, that is 2018’s most unforgettable story: an unbelievable, moving tale of heroism, bravery, sacrifice and lives saved against seemingly impossible odds ….
But I know an even better one. It happened 2000 years ago, when one Man knowingly, willingly sacrificed Himself for the whole world. As we leave 2018 and welcome in 2019, consider what that story might mean to you, will you?
*For those too young to remember and too lazy to Google it, Apollo 13 was supposed to be the third mission carrying Americans to the moon and back. On the way out an explosion on board caused the men to have to abort the lunar landing. Thanks to an heroic effort by the team at NASA, they survived, barely making it back to earth safely. It’s where the phrase, “Houston, we’ve had a problem” entered the American lexicon.