Count B.C. diver Erik Brown as among those surprised but elated that all members of a Thai boys’ soccer team were rescued after getting trapped in an underwater cave for over two weeks.
As part of a team of support divers assisting the main rescue divers, Brown was actively involved in the search on each of the three days divers went in this week to retrieve the 12 boys and their coach.
“I got told from the previous divers sort of what it was like, but when I arrived here and went in the first dive and saw even the first section, which is the 25-minute underwater swim and navigation through, pretty much mud … I won’t lie — in my head I was [thinking] there’s very little chance this would work,” Brown told CBC News Network on Wednesday.
“You literally couldn’t write this. It’s extraordinary what some of these guys pulled off, and I’m happy that I could help in whatever way I could to support them and make their job a little easier along the way.”
Each mission lasted about 10 hours in total, Brown said, including an hour-long hike to the mouth of the Tham Luang cave.
Brown, from Langley, B.C., said it was the most complicated operation he’s ever been involved in, with the dive entailing “cracks 30 centimetres big that you have to squeeze through to get back there, and you really can’t see your hand in front of your face.”
“When they say zero visibility, they mean zero visibility — you can’t see anything.”
Brown was in southern Thailand when a friend involved in the early stages of the search for the team sent him a message indicating that divers were needed. He flew up from southern Thailand on July 22, the day before the kids were located in the cave.
He was soon among those on call to be pressed into duty.
“You had to have your boots on, wetsuit on, 24 hours a day,” he told the CBC’s Early Edition in B.C.
Other divers, particularly at the beginning of the rescue, described water temperatures as low as 20C.
Most seriously, a former Thai navy diver volunteering to work on the rescue efforts died on July 6 while replenishing oxygen canisters on the escape route, highlighting the dangers involved in the rescue attempt.
‘No one really gave up’
In addition to members of the Thai navy, international divers and engineers from the United States, Australia and Britain participated, and what emerged in the mountainous Chiang Rai in the northern part of the country was a “full infrastructure and mini-city of communication,” said Brown.
“There was definitely no lack of efficiency in this operation, for sure,” he said.
Things looked bleak as the rainy season is just beginning in Thailand, but “no one really gave up, and ideas kept coming,” Brown added.
Crews pumped out more than one million cubic metres of water from the cave before divers entered beginning on July 8, helping to create dry areas of passage.
The rescue may have been just in time. Australian divers involved in the operation told the Guardian on Wednesday a pump failure saw water levels climb back up rapidly after the last boy emerged.
Thai officials said on Wednesday that on average the boys lost four to five pounds but were in generally good health considering their ordeal.
For Brown, the next task is clear after a roller-coaster two weeks — spending time with family.
“I definitely, after something like this, need a little bit of rest.”