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Since late on June 23, virtually the entire nation has been gripped by the saga of 12 young boys and their football coach trapped inside the Tham Luang cave in the northern Chiang Rai province.
However, late on Monday night (July 2), what was originally anticipation – waiting to hear news on the boys and their coach – turned to jubilation after it was announced that all 13 had been found safe and well in the depths of the northern Thai cave.
Since Monday’s announcement there have been several names of foreign rescue workers mentioned in national and international media, one of those names being Ben Reymenants, owner and founder of the long-established Blue Label Diving company based in Rawai, Phuket.
After returning from Chiang Rai on Tuesday (July 3), and despite having very little sleep for the previous five days, Reymenants was kind enough to speak to The Phuket News about the rescue mission and his involvement in it.
It was on the evening of June 27 that Reymenants received a call from a liaison officer to the Royal Thai Navy asking if he could come to support them with the rescue operation.
“I was called because of my cave expertise, if you can call it that,” Reymenants explained.
“We run a technical diving training facility in Rawai and specialise in deep cave exploration using specialised compact life-support systems that allow us to go further and deeper than conventional scuba,” he said.
“I guess I was the closest to the site [so that’s why I was called]. AirAsia kindly organised flights for myself and 85 kilograms of dive gear,” he added.
Once he arrived at the site, Reymenants said his and his team’s main objective was to lay a thick static climbing rope to cover the 2.5km stretch from Camp 3 to the area called “Pattaya Beach”, where they presumed the kids were.
“This was of course pure speculation as they had no idea if the team actually got to one of the dry rooms in time as the cave started flooding because of sudden rainfall.
“There were basically two options: if they had made it in time, they would be either in Pattaya Beach, or another smaller chamber 200 metres further. These chambers are known to stay dry during monsoon and contain enough oxygen for several months. There is also fresh water dripping from the stalactites on the cave’s roof,” Reymenants explained.
At first, there was a feeling of nervousness and frustration amongst the team members because it was very hard to make headway.
“The Royal Thai Navy and local electricity authority had laid lines to set up radio communication and lights at the restricted area 800m from Pattaya Beach. However, more rain made the water rise suddenly at a rate of 30 centimetres an hour and they had to hastily retreat about one and a half kilometres to an area now called Camp 3,” Reymenants added.
Turning his attention to conditions inside the cave, Reymenants said that the first days were especially tough going. “It felt like hauling gear up Mount Everest,” he said. “Pulling yourself through raging rapids followed by multiple climbs up rocky muddy slopes.
“When we finally got to the water at Camp 3 the visibility was 5cm, barely enough to read our instruments. There was also strong flow and I only made about 200m of headway. Then I got stuck in a restriction with an inwards flow, so I decided to turn around,” he said.
“On my way back I met the British cave team, who also had doubts, and we decided to report that the rescue would be unsafe in these conditions. However, when we heard the next day that the Navy SEALs would try anyway, using conventional scuba gear and having little cave experience, I decided it would be better if I pushed ahead, against the advice of the British cave divers, who were already packing their bags.
“Surprisingly, the water level had dropped, the current was less and the visibility had improved to about a metre. The Thai Navy SEALs had just come out but they had ended up in a dead end. I decided to give it at least a try with my dive buddy Maksym Polejaka.
“We found another passage and managed to lay 200m of static line in the right direction. Motivated by this, the British divers decided to go back in and they also laid several hundreds of metres of line,” Reymenants explained to The Phuket News.
“The next day, with the help of a 30-year-old map drawn by French explorers and some hint from a local expat Briton geologist, we managed to connect the T-section, connecting the main tunnel to the passage to Pattaya Beach. We ran out of line a few hundred metres before Pattaya Beach,” he said.
Late Monday evening, Reymenants exited the cave and during a brief break away from on-site media spoke to The Phuket News, he was hopeful that a team would reach the kids and coach either that night or early the next day.
He was right.
“Right after we made the connection to the final lap, the British team went in and they managed to bridge the last gap, swam a bit farther than Pattaya Beach and found the kids in the last chamber. They shot the video and immediately returned with the good news.
“I was still in my wetsuit and immediately returned to site where I found, what I can only describe as a rave party full of cheering and crying people. Happiness all along. Even the Navy General gave me a hug,” Reymenants said.
Reymenants modestly said that what he and the team had achieved was just a small step but the biggest task was yet to come: safely getting the boys out.
“Half a dozen countries have sent their military experts with equipment, full-face masks, communication systems, food, etc, but the question still remains; do we teach them to dive – they can’t even swim – and guide them out of what is rated an extremely complex and dangerous cave system, or just hope for the rain to stop and keep pumping so they can be floated out in a life jacket.
“The last and least desirable option, should the rain start and flood the entire cave system, is to have them hibernate three to four months until the rain stops and the water resides,” he said.
“Two Royal Thai Navy medics have volunteered to stay with the kids with enough food and medication to outlast the rainy season, a remarkable sacrifice.
“As we speak, Navy SEALs have visited the kids and provided first aid and are slowly giving them special nutrition. They can’t have any solids as they did not have food for 10 days nor did they see any light for all that time.
“Hopes are high, but we’re a long way from having them surface.”