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The heroism of the Thailand cave rescue

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This story appears in ESPN The Magazine’s July 30 Heroes Issue. Subscribe today!

What was the mission like, over 29 hours in early July, when a team of Royal Thai navy SEALs and international divers rescued 12 boys on the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach from the Tham Luang Nang Non cave? What was the first sentence uttered on July 2 when divers found the boys, ages 11 to 16, meditating in the cave 2.5 miles in, where they’d been trapped by floodwaters since June 23, after monsoons turned a hiking excursion into an international crisis? How did that mood change when the divers — after hiking through mud and swimming through filthy water, after suffering electric shocks from jerry-rigged wires snaking through the caves to provide light, and after experiencing wild swings in body temperature as the levels of oxygen rose and fell — explained to the boys that they might not be able to leave for weeks?

Did the young players panic? Could the SEALs feel their fear? Could they feel the fear of all of us who were watching from afar as the reality set in that the situation might end tragically, like too much else in the world? Could the SEALs feel the dull panic of other former SEALs, who from a distance considered the impossibility of the mission? “I’d have bet that they wouldn’t get everyone out alive,” says Mark Donald, a decorated retired U.S. Navy SEAL and medical officer. “It’s like saying, ‘We’re going to win this baseball game, but we’ve gotta pitch a no-hitter.'”

Maybe there were clues that the SEALs would indeed succeed, even after one of them, Saman Gunan, died while transporting oxygen. Maybe the media interviews before the mission were a tell, the SEALs refusing to acknowledge emotion or stakes or improbability — Do Your Job, in extremis. “You either do or don’t,” Donald says. “There’s no almost.” Maybe that’s how in a matter of days the SEALs tried to not only teach the kids to swim but to swim fully submerged in a dark and sludgy labyrinth 18 football fields long, including through one bend only 15 inches wide, before electing to administer them anti-anxiety medicine, strapping full-face masks to their heads and harnessing their bodies to stretchers. Maybe the new rescue details that emerge daily and the disclaimers in media stories — that the graphics of cave topography aren’t precise; that only about 15 percent oxygen remained in the cave, estimated at 800 to 1,000 meters below the surface — add to the lore, because this rescue will always exist in a realm beyond our ability to understand what it was like.

And maybe that’s OK, because what matters most is not the how or the what but the simple fact that it happened, the images of the boys emerging from the cave in sets of four, and the tiny acts of care, such as the divers outfitting them with sunglasses to ease their adjustment back out into the world. Maybe we need heroes, real ones, ones who pull off feats that leave other heroes in awe, more than we care to admit. And if the heroics are so astounding that nobody will ever be able to explain what it was really like — the SEALs themselves would later post on Facebook: “We are not sure if this is a miracle, a science, or what” — maybe we’ll nevertheless cling to the memory of this moment, to this evidence of what it’s like when dark turns to light.



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