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Rescues, Caves and Celebrity Salvation

It all risks becoming pornographic, looped and re-run with an obsessive eye for updates and detail about despair and hope. The twenty-four hour news cycle tends to encourage this sort of thing, ever desperate for snippets, obsessively chasing the update. With a soccer team of twelve youths and their coach trapped in Tham Luang Nang Non cave some one kilometre below the surface, the curious, the gormless, and those with an unhealthy interest in the morbid have assumed couch position.

First came the discovery of the team by British divers after the group had gone missing for nine days. They were found on a ledge inside the Northern Thai cave system. Divers Rick Stanton and John Volanthen were feted as being among the best in the world, the former having been awarded an MBE for, of all things, services in cave diving.

There was much hooting and tooting in celebration, something prompted by the fact that any hope of finding them alive, according to the governor of Chiang Rai province, was nigh impossible. But the mechanics of extricating the team from the cave started to mount in complexity and desperation, bursting the initial balloon of celebration.

With 2.5 miles of flooded cave between the team and the entrance, a sense of imperilment has grown. This is compounded by a dreaded risk that adds a televisual ghastliness to the tale: the prospect of more heavy rain on the weekend, something that will foil current efforts to drain the excess water.

A village of international rescue experts including military personnel has grown around the enterprise, not to mention a vast hive of media representatives. Four questions seem to be doing the rounds: to leave the team in the cave till there is a receding of the water level (dangerous given the monsoon season); pumping out the water to an extent to enable the trapped team to wade out; teaching the youths how so scuba dive, something which would be no mean feat given the length of time it would take for them to journey out of the cave (some five hours) and their status as virginal divers; and finally, drilling into the cave system.

Thai Navy Seals have been deployed, and much help is at hand, but the goriness has not been entirely dissipated. The Navy Seal Chief Rear Adm. Arpakorn Yoo-kongkaew has been feeding the story to journalists keen to strike the optimistic note.

The Rear Admiral did not disappoint. “Now we have given food to the boys, starting with food that is easy to digest and provides high energy.” He stressed that care has been given to the youths “following the doctor’s recommendation. So do not worry, we will take care of them with our best. We will bring all of them with safety. We are now planning how to do so.” Such confidence was given a dint with the subsequent death of one of his crew, Samarn Poonan, who perished due to lack of oxygen during a dive.

One similar incident stands out to what is currently unfolding in Thailand: the initial loss, the recovery and sanctifying of the “Los 33”, the Chilean miners who became celebrities of salvation in 2010. They spent 69 days in the collapsed San Jose mine near Copiapó. Over time, a process of mythologising began to take place.

It was fame imposed on the ordinary, confected by the mere fact, as important as that fact was, that they had survived. Like Church miracle artefacts, they were vested with allure, attraction, and sheer pulling power. They were also there to be exploited, used, and interpreted. Otherwise, they were uncomplicated creatures of animal and mineral, many of whom believed that God had been the thirty-fourth miner keeping them resolute.

As the rescue effort unfolded, the minor celebrity bandwagon grew. US radio personality Ryan Seacrest sent prayers and well wishes hoping, rather insipidly, “to see everyone on the surface soon.” The clownish Irish song duo of Jedward sent their own message of tinny idiocy: “All the miners remember it’s not about mining it’s about finding dinosaurs and dragons.” The late English presenter Keith Chegwin expressed some mock shame that “Dig Brother” had ended. “Wonder what Chile 4 will put on now.”

The miners would subsequently add a touch of mysticism to the rescue, essentially sacralising it. Jorge Galleguillos spoke of seeing “a white species … a butterfly” falling “like a paper” into the mine. “Faith is nourishment … Faith is life.” Stories abounded of how medical ailments were healed by prayer. The drill used to tunnel to the miners was guided, according to miner Ariel Ticona, “by the hand of God”.

The miners became the heralds of a modern success story. They were invited as guests of honour to Manchester United. They did the US chat show circuit. As a statement of pure fantasy, they went to that composite of fantasy, Disneyland. Then, for another sort of miracle dream work, they ventured to the Holy Land. Expenses were footed.

Amidst the celebratory orgy typical of myth came a few sceptical qualifiers. The degree of medical danger posed to them, for instance, had been given undue embellishment. Dr. James Polk, deputy chief medical officer and chief of space medicine at NASA put this down to “not having all the facts, and things that people did not know about the situation”.

The workers were, for instance, trapped at sea level and could hardly have suffered from decompression sickness. The miners were less confined as was portrayed, able to continue their labours underground. Nor were they at risk of Vitamin D deficiency. “Chilean authorities,” according to Polk, “anticipated this, and they gave them a large dose of Vitamin D3 as part of their nutritional supplementation.”

Many of the rescued miners subsequently faced the ruination of imposed fame. Mario Sepúlveda spoke of “fame but not money. It is the worst possible thing.” The camera that had given him and his colleagues celebrity had also consumed them. His world remains one of anti-depressants and a return to mining, where the darkness comforts.

The “Los 33” effect is very much at play regarding this young football team even as the rescue crews are busying themselves on tactics. The big and the moneyed are seeking their place in the sun, offering advice. Some are constructive; others are simply sentimental. Elon Musk, according to a spokesman, has revealed that negotiations are underway on supplying location technology using Space Exploration Technologies Corp. or Boring Co. technology for digging purposes, or providing Tesla Inc. Powerwall battery packs. But to every little bit of brain storming comes the deadly qualifier: engaging such services as that of Boring Co., with its colossal drills, might simply be too dangerous.

Even now, the young team has drawn on the heartstrings of the football community, encouraging a measure of faith. Liverpool Football manager Jürgen Klopp, in an official video intended for the youngsters and their coach, spoke of “hoping every second that you see the daylight again. You’ll never walk alone.” Such language, heartfelt yet tinged with a sense of funereal doom.


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  1. Kerri

    It really gets up my nose how quickly any tragedy survived becomes a “miracle”!!!!
    Give me a break! Those divers are working their tails off as are the teams manning the pumps.
    To claim “god” did something is to insult those whose hard work, training and professionalism has really saved the day. Whether it be rescuing trapped people or operating on babies in utero.
    Give me qualifications and experience over prayers and offerings any day.

  2. Phil

    When this Thai cave saga eventually ends, and I hope it ends well for all concerned, I’d like to see the rescue teams and the world media descend on Manus and Nauru to rescue the more than 1300 innocents trapped by an unconscionable government and its morally bankrupt voter support base, for more than five years.

  3. Josephus

    Apt comment Phil.

    I fail to see why the coach did not know it was monsoon season and therefore that it was reckless to take a group far into the cave system. Surely he needs to be sacked, or/and those who failed to educate the coach about his duty of care. The youths are playing the entertainment game by grinning as they pose, while others risk their lives to save them.

  4. diannaart

    It all risks becoming pornographic, looped and re-run with an obsessive eye for updates and detail about despair and hope. The twenty-four hour news cycle tends to encourage this sort of thing, ever desperate for snippets, obsessively chasing the update. With a soccer team of twelve youths and their coach trapped in Tham Luang Nang Non cave some one kilometre below the surface, the curious, the gormless, and those with an unhealthy interest in the morbid have assumed couch position.

    Well said, Dr Binoy Kampmark

    Having watched “The Night Crawler” last night, starring Jake Gyllenhaal in a role he performs so disturbingly convincingly …

    … and now reading your opening paragraph …

    … and then Phil’s cogent comment above …

    I do hope the boys and coach are safely rescued, I also hope for the detainees at any refugee camp to be found homes and released from their involuntary prison.

    I am becoming more and more despondent at this world controlled by the self centred, self serving and sociopathic.

  5. David Somerfield

    Replying to Josephus:-
    As somebody with family in Thailand (Thai family) you should know that ‘the coach’ may not have been aware that flooding was a danger as the caves are entered up a mountain and travel upwards for a long distance before turning and descending. Any one of us could have made the same mistake.
    Added to that he spent 10 years as an ordained Monk and I’ll bet anything that as the actual situation developed he was the one who kept them both physically safe and mentally ok.
    And finally as someone who has spent so far 28 different periods living in Thailand and knowing the people I take very serious offense at your suggestion that “The youths are playing the entertainment game by grinning as they pose, while others risk their lives to save them”
    They are only around 12 years old you clown from a land where they have grown up with a much simpler view on life and will be very innocent of and frankly unaware of how big this rescue is. Their innocence is not to be stolen by a smart-arsed keyboard warrior like you mate.

  6. Kaye Lee

    I think the boys were smiling to reassure their parents that they were ok. I think they were incredibly brave to be able to do that. And I agree the coach must have played a major role in keeping the boys calm and alive. Professional divers have been caught by flash floods. I don’t think blame is appropriate or helpful.

  7. diannaart

    From recent reports, I hear the young coach (he’s 25) has been of incredible support, helping the boys to survive during the long 9 days before they were found. I understand he is a Buddhist and helped, not only by giving the boys his own share of food, but by meditation lessons to ease panic.

    Of course the boys were anxious to let their parents know they were OK – also the relief of finally being found would be difficult to hide.

    What is it with some people so eager to find blame?

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