Thai Cave Rescue Media Coverage: Notable for the Most Part

adsit80By John Adsit
Educational Consultant

The whole world watched in fascination as a massive international rescue team worked to pull off an unprecedented rescue of a soccer team trapped in a cave in Thailand. I watched from the perspective of a cave diver, a former journalism instructor, and a diving instructor. One of the talks I have had on and off for the last few years has been to help investigate and write reports on cave diving fatalities for the National Speleological Society, and from that perspective it was refreshing to watch a scenario that ended so happily, for that is not the norm for cave diving incidents.

The result of the rescue was, of course, wonderful, but in reflecting on some of the elements I observed from afar, I believe there was a whole lot that went very well in that situation in addition to the happy ending. I saw a lot of appropriate and professional behavior on the part of a number of parties, and because of it the few bad moments stand out in stark contrast.

In the social media I followed, one of the questions that was raised on several occasions was why there was not more commentary from the true experts on cave rescues around the world. To me, that lack of commentary was a positive highlight. After my ETC article (7/4/18), I was contacted by the BBC and asked to sit for an interview. I declined. I explained that I lacked the expertise to speak on an issue of that complexity—my article about the education aspects was the limit to which I could speak with authority.

Edd Sorenson, the Safety Director for the National Speleological Society—Cave Diving Section, was a model of the kind of media restraint I found so remarkable in this case.

One expert who was interviewed was Edd Sorenson, the Safety Director for the National Speleological Society—Cave Diving Section. He is truly one of the most accomplished divers in the world in terms of cave rescue. He gave an interview to CNN, and in doing so he was a model of the kind of restraint I found so remarkable in this case. He openly acknowledged that the cave divers on the scene were among the very best in the world, and they had direct eyes on the details he could not know. It would not be appropriate, then, for him to speculate and make suggestions from afar. He was willing to explain what he saw happening, but that was as far as he was willing to go.

The restraint he showed is simply not the norm in the cave diving community. In the aftermath of rescue attempts (which rarely succeed) and body recoveries (much more common), the second-guessing and pontificating about what should or should not have been done begins immediately. Perhaps it is the memory of such events in their own lives that led Sorenson and other top names in cave rescue to show the respect to the rescuers on scene that they have not always received themselves.

I saw this first hand when I was diving with Sorenson, and we became involved with a near fatality in another party as we exited the cave. We helped get the victim to the hospital, and Edd immediately supervised the investigation of the incident, with the police taking notes as he did. The next day, the cave diving social media featured completely erroneous reports on the incident that were written by people who were not remotely in the vicinity of the incident. Those false reports led to a lot of unfortunate speculation and anger.

Much of the problems of this nature result from grandstanding, the need some people have to thrust themselves into the story and take credit that rightfully belongs to others. Once again, there was remarkably little of that at Tham Luang. People seemed very content to give the rescuers all the credit they so richly deserved. I was annoyed by one cave diver who not only gave a series of interviews but felt compelled to post links to those interviews on his FaceBook page—but that was unusual.

The most startling exception to that was most notable for how the Internet responded. A branch of an agency named Unified Team Diving, UTD Asia, made a deceptive FaceBook post about half way through the actual rescues. Using a diagram of the rescue efforts published elsewhere, they made a very carefully worded post that implied to anyone not reading the grammatical structure carefully that they were involved in the rescue and that their signature equipment design was being used because it was the right tool for the job. None of that was true. After one congratulatory post by someone who had obviously been fooled, they were flooded with condemnation in the strongest possible language. They then completely rewrote the post, and when the condemnation did not end, they removed it completely. Their misguided attempt to capitalize on the rescue was a complete failure.

As a former journalism teacher, I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the media response. Oh, there were false reports and misinformation, but not nearly as much as I would have expected given the misinformation frenzies that are so typically associated with major news events. Perhaps credit can go to the way the information was controlled at the site itself, but for whatever the reason, most stories were reasonably accurate.

The one area in which reporting could be improved in all stories throughout the world related to diving was particularly maddening in this story, and that is the misidentification of what divers breathe as “oxygen.” Divers rarely breathe pure oxygen under water; doing so below 20 feet can be fatal. Reporters so routinely refer to the compressed air divers usually breathe as “oxygen” that we normally ignore it. In this unusual case, though, there were times in this rescue that the use of oxygen might be appropriate. We saw a video in which a truck arrived at the scene filled with oxygen supply tanks. What was that for? How was it being used? Because of the constant misuse of the term “oxygen” by reporters throughout the ordeal, no one really knows when they really did mean oxygen rather than air.

So a youth soccer team went for an exploration of a popular cave and ended up being the subjects of one of the greatest rescue efforts in my memory. They were rescued by a well-coordinated effort by true experts. I look forward to the time when the full details of those efforts are released, but in the meantime, I am also going to take time to give the kudos to the good behavior of those who watched it all in rapt wonder.
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Related article by John Adsit: Thailand Cave Rescue via Diving Is a Daunting Challenge (7/4/18).

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