Three Most Important Takeaways from the Thai Cave Rescue

Harry Keller 80By Harry Keller
Former ETCJ Science Editor
& President of SmartScience

The first lesson is that you don’t have to be clever or high-tech to solve this sort of problem. The final solution was straightforward, although extremely difficult to implement. It involved existing diving technology. These days, everyone seeks the high-tech or innovative solution first.

You might consider the solution used as being the “brute force” solution. A large number of air tanks had to be assembled along with a large number, around 90 as I’ve read, of highly experienced and capable divers. Divers deployed the air hose essential to survival and ferried food to the trapped soccer team. They set up a line for navigating the more difficult portions of the submerged cave. Some even stayed with the remaining few team members until the last one disappeared into the gloomy waters with his two accompanying divers.

The second lesson is that every cave of any difficulty should have prominent warning signs posted to keep out inexperienced people. What were those team members doing so deep in the cave? I have yet to see an answer to that question. Their foolishness cost one diver his life. It might have cost all 13 their lives, too. I sincerely hope that the publicity accompanying this incident keeps others from running these risks. The coach should have known better.

The third lesson is the importance of organization. I think that those in charge did essentially everything right, although they might have been able to move more rapidly had there not been so much “noise” to filter out. The noise came from the media and a great many well-meaning individuals and organizations. The volunteer divers were the good part.  

The first step, always, is to put someone in charge. The next step, in this situation, was to ensure the ongoing life of those trapped children and coach. The air hose and food did that. (We later learned that the oxygen being pumped in was barely sufficient.) Finally, focus on the rescue itself. Make a plan.  Execute that plan.

The hole-drilling and the intercession of Elon Musk did not help things one bit. The pumping did help, though, and it helped a great deal. There’s a tendency to do everything possible in a crisis situation when you really must focus on one solution. Someone finally did that, and you see the results.

Thirteen people walked and crawled into a cave. They went in a very long way without diving or swimming. Indeed, those children did not know how to swim. (We later learned that they did know how to swim.) The rain appeared at exactly the wrong time and trapped them. It turned a simple search-and-rescue into a cave-diving operation.

I do not wish to be a “Monday-morning quarterback” here. As far as I know, the people in charge did everything they had to do to make the rescue a success. Was time wasted on other ideas? I can’t tell. Was the air hose run to the trapping chamber as soon as possible? I have no information about that. Did the media circus affect the ability of the rescue team, including the support people, to do their job? I have not read anything that will answer that question. Was the final solution planned and implemented as quickly as possible? No one has reported on that. Did all the people who rescued those trapped children (and coach) show determination, courage, and skill? It sure looks like it to me.

The one black spot is the dead diver. How could that death have been prevented. Not being a diver myself, I have no way to figure that out. He and all of the other divers who battled extremely challenging conditions deserve to be held up as heroes. That coach who made the decision to enter and traverse that cave now has to live with the knowledge that his actions caused the death of one young man and risked the lives of many more. I am glad that I am not he.

Related article by Keller: Science Is Not the Friend of Thai Cave Soccer Team

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