For Thai journalist Nattha Komolvadhin, the heart-pounding, 18-day rescue mission of 12 boys and their coach from the depths of a flooded cave in Thailand not only brought the country together but captured the attention of the entire world.
“People are united together,” Komolvadhin, a news editor for Thai PBS, told “20/20.” “This is the very first time in Thailand for many years that people feel the same mission. People [have] joined [in] spirit to really accomplish this mission and it's, in a way, wonderful for Thailand, [that] at this very moment to have the story that people feel that we have to move together, we have to fight together, and we have to send our support to help these 12 boys and the coach.”
Komolvadhin was one of the hundreds of journalists reporting on the dangerous rescue mission to extract the 12 members of the Wild Boars soccer team and their assistant coach trapped inside the five-mile-long Tham Luang Cave in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province along the Thailand-Myanmar border.
The mission became a global effort with experts and rescuers flying in from Britain, Denmark, Finland, Canada, and Australia to assist the more than 1,000 Thai officials.
As the days ticked by, Komolvadhin described an intense scene at the mouth of the cave where everyone was “anxiously waiting” for updates. She said officials were in one room planning out the rescue, the parents of the trapped boys were in another room and reporters were standing by in another area outside, while the rescue teams worked “around the clock” to pump water out of the cave.
Extracting the boys who couldn’t swim was one of the biggest concerns of the rescue operators who were closely tracking the weather forecast in Thailand’s monsoon season, Komolvadhin said, adding that the heavy rains during the first few days of the mission interfered with the attempts to pump out the water from the cave.
“The cave [has] zero visibility,” she said. “It's very muddy, very dark and the path is very narrow. It’s hilly at the same time -- that's why the diver couldn't go too far inside the cave.”
Two British divers finally discovered the group on July 2, after they had been trapped for nine days. Miraculously, they were all alive.
“Before that... we didn't know what the situation was like for them,” Komolvadhin said. “But finally from that moment, the whole world saw their face, saw their emotion -- their high spirit. That's where the bond between [the] audience, [the] people who didn't know them in person, [developed a] stronger bond with those boys.”
After learning that all of them were alive, the rescue teams started weighing their options. They considered sending in military personnel and geologists to try and divert the water and even thought of drilling from the top of the mountain to extract the boys and their coach. At one point, they mulled over the possibility of sending months of food supplies inside the cave.
But once they started sending in rescuers, tragedy struck three days later. Saman Gunan, a 38-year-old former Thai Navy SEAL who had come out of retirement to help, died on July 5 from lack of oxygen while trying to place 300 oxygen tanks along the rescue route. That was the moment that seemed to unite the politically fractured Thailand, Komolvadhin said.
“In a way, it boost[ed] the spirit of [Thai] Navy SEALs and people around the country also [felt] that this mission really [had] to be accomplished because we [didn’t] want to see the death of the ex-Navy SEAL Saman Gunan [go to] waste,” she said.
“We [saw] the death of the ex-Navy SEAL and it [triggered] the point that it means the oxygen level inside the cave was very, very low,” she continued. “That's [why] they really [had] to speed up the rescue operation and that's how we got more international experts coming and [joining] hands in this operation.”
The boys and their coach were extracted from the cave in three groups until, finally, all were out on Tuesday. They were immediately rushed to the hospital and put in quarantine to be tested for infections.
“A doctor told us that their spirit -- their mental health are quite good. They even asked for bread with chocolate,” Komolvadhin said. “That's very good sign that they are craving for food.”
The parents, who according to Komolvadhin, don’t blame the coach who took the team to the cave and had been communicating with the boys through messages delivered by the SEALs.
“That shows [the] spirit of [the] parents of the boys that they are also concerned with the health or the well-being of the coach,” she said. “It shows a human touch, it shows human connection and [the] love and affection between parents and the boys.”