I was invited by the venerable SOFREP Senior Writer Luke Ryan to contribute a measure of an addendum to his series on the on-going crisis in Thailand, the Tham Luang Nang Non (Cave of Our Sleeping Lady) soccer team rescue. The request for a follow-on update, yes, but from the perspective of a military diver.
I am a graduate of the U.S. Army Special Forces Underwater Operations Course, basic course, and the advanced Diver Supervisor Course. Stepping out of those two courses I was qualified for an honorary Advanced Open-Water Diver qualification from MAUI. I came into the Army already with a civilian rating and formal qualification with PADI.
Caveat: Army tactical combat divers do not presume to be Navy SEALs; that is, they have a dive mission that encompasses only a portion of the broader mission statement that their Navy counterparts, SEALs, embrace and train for. I don’t pit one diver against the other; both are highly efficient at their assigned mission intent.
The bad news, the crisis in the Chiang Rai cave system is far from over.
The good news, the crisis in the cave system is far from over. If the young men of the soccer team had expired, the crisis would indeed be over, but they are still with us material slobs and that’s great news, but getting them out has already proven a major undertaking.
To recap the essentials of the situation; the soccer team led by the team leader was on a simple exploratory outing to the cave system that was known by all the boys on the soccer team as well as their coach. An element not factored in was the fact that the monsoon season was upon them and dumped a torrential amount of rain while they were in the cave, flooding the system and essentially trapping the young men about two miles into the cave.
Whose fault specifically it is — well, that is an issue we all hope we have the privilege of hashing out with the team at a later date when the immediate crisis is behind us, and we all feel froggy enough to ignite the Blame Throwers.
Finding the victims was approximately half the fight, and it’s a stellar thing that they were found alive at all. The rest of the crisis, in much the same fashion as the Chilean Mine Rescue in recent past, rests with the potential solutions on how to get them rescued from their perhaps precarious position deep inside the cave.
Fun fact, the first two people to make it to the lost boys were renowned British cave divers John Volanthen of Briston, and Richard Stanton of Coventry, England. Both men are world authorities and record-holding bar-setters in their field.
The major hurdles the rescue operation is pitted against are:
- Many, if not all of the boys are non-swimmers presenting a great hazard to the rescue
- The absolute absence of light making for pitch-black conditions belaboring logistics
- Narrow passages requiring the divers to remove their air tanks to squeeze through
- Murky waters fording near zero visibility condition already compounded by the lack of illumination in the cave
- Submerged stretches of the cave inflicting a mandatory subsurface dive operation requirement
- Cold temperatures render further burden to an already over-tasked logistic situation
- Rising and swift water currents due to the pressing monsoon rains and limited ability to pump
out sufficient quantity of flood water
- Time — if the flood rescue option is ruled out, the boys are threatened with sitting out the rest of the monsoon season, which could last as long as four months, until the water levels fall naturally, allowing them to travel out on foot
That said, the golden hour to beat the monsoons is now! Now is the time to get out before the volume of rain and flood water becomes so much more unmanageable to the extent of trapping the boys in the cave for the duration of the season, a prospect almost unspeakable.
The rescuers’ decision-making process has not been flawed so far, in my eyes at least; I see the choice to call in Thai Royal Navy UDAU was an absolute must. I have only my own Green Beret diving experience and frequent experience operating with Navy SEALs on which to base my support for my statements — but let me say this about that:
I have been a civilian recreational diver and an Army Combat Diver. I can only imagine the empty bravado of the former pontificating about how they should have been called up to rectify this situation because they’s divers [sic]. I’m not saying that wouldn’t have been effective, but I am willing to bet my life savings on the notion that this sort of diving situation might be, shall we say, excessively spicy for them?
I have never been on a fun dive in the Army. Every dive was in extremely cold water, towing very heavy loads, during hours of limited or no visibility, very often with no bottom within comfortable reach, and traveling thousands of meters with just the faint glow of a compass needle and pressure on my ears to navigate by.
I have been diving in murky lakes and swift rivers with no visibility hunting for a corpse by feel. That is an unnerving concept, as it would be bad enough to find the departed by sight alone, but to suddenly feel a leg, an arm, or a face is morbidity in overdrive times Jesse Owens. Thankfully a face in the murk doesn’t quite feel like a face at all, because most of the time it is completely disfigured by crabs and other creatures feeding on the body. I think MAUI and PADI cover that subject but it has honestly been so long that I can’t quite remember.
There is something else to be said about diving in freshwater and at altitudes above sea level. Well, diving at altitude is always going to be fresh water because, well… there is no seawater above sea level, get it? Freshwater is not as dense as sea water. It weighs less per cubic foot that salt water by about three pounds.
The altitude presents a different dynamic to dive physics, as the pressures at altitude differ than those at sea level and below. That means that the standard U.S. Navy Dive Tables that were developed by the U.S. Navy Experimental Dive Unit (EDU) in Panama City, Florida don’t work for altitude dives.
I mean it is not a major issue to dive at altitude, it is just a consideration, but it must be planned for or divers run the distinct risk of contracting decompression sickness, in other words, the “Bends”. A great example of the difference in planning considerations for altitude diving is as follow:
“If the actual depth is 60 feet and the altitude is 8,000 feet, the equivalent depth is 81.1 feet. The dive can then be planned with normal dive tables using an 82-foot depth.”
The Navy Altitude Dive Tables start at 1000 feet Above Sea Level (ASL); the Tham Luang cave sits right about at 1,469 feet ASL.
Military divers never plan on doing a diver deeper or longer than that which will run the risk of causing the Bends, always following the Navy Dive Table No Decompression Limits with Repetitive Dive Group Designator. Let’s have a quick look at a simple entry in the tables. Please, stay with me; this will all be over very soon:
This excerpt I chose because it shows the deepest dive authorized by an Army Combat Diver. From left to right it indicates that at 130 feet of seawater the longest we can stay down (bottom time) is 10 minutes, breathing normal compressed air, with no decompression stops, the amount of time it will take us to safely ascend is four minutes and twenty seconds, and our repetitive dive group designator is “E”. If we look up E we will see the minimum amount of time we must remain on land before we can repeat this same dive without danger of the Bends!
Good news is the divers in the cave scenario only face about 15 feet of fresh water at an altitude of 1,469 feet ASL, and only for bottom time durations that will not effectively approach maximum allowable limits. There really is no danger of the Bends, although the extremely cold conditions of the cave dive are actually conducive to the sickness.
Options for rescue at present include but are not necessarily limited to:
- Teaching the boys how to SCUBA dive in the time they have
- Outfit the boys with full face masks so they are not subject to the rigors of standard SCUBA apparatus
- Wait until the monsoon season is over in ~four months when the waters have subsided
- Pump the water level low enough to surface swim the boys out
- Conduct a drill down operations from the surface much like the Chilean Miner rescue operations.
It may truly seem like the options are bad and worse, I don’t dispute that. I do say that the operations are off to a good start with some sound decision making done up front. I will say in even greater confidence that the support mechanisms responding to the crisis on the ground is both formidable and worthy; they have the right people for the right job there.
This report is largely devoid of my usual humor; in this dire event, I simply have nothing clever to say.
As of the writing of this story another development hit the news regarding this crisis. Headlines on July 6th read: “Thai diver dies amid cave rescue of trapped soccer team
Authorities have raised concerns about how much air the 12 stranded boys and their coach have access to inside the cave.”
While it is horrifying that a Thai SEAL has perished, there is one point of contention right this very minute with this story and another probably glaring error.
To presume that the boys cannot be trained adequately to use basic SCUBA is pure drama. Many children their age routinely take SCUBA training and go on compressed air with a conventional two-stage breathing regulator on the first day.
(conventional two-stage regulator)
And that is not to say that these young men are planned to dive that way at all, rather with a full-face mask that allows a person to breath normal as if not underwater at all. These boys, unless they are otherwise fully engaged otherwise, actually have time on their hands all day long to learn and accustom themselves to the basic apparatus they need to safely exit the tunnel.
Possible error in reporting: “Oxygen, oxygen tanks,” While there may be some medicinal oxygen tanks in the mix, it is HIGHLY unlikely that reporters are making a very common laymen’s error by calling the diver’s gas cylinders oxygen tanks when they are in fact compressed air tanks.
Diver’s don’t normally dive with pure oxygen; it is a dangerous, difficult, and very specialized dive profile. Laymen routinely misuse the term oxygen when talking about SCUBA diving. There will be no compressed oxygen diver operations performed by the boys!
Lastly, how did the Thai SEAL die? That strikes me as odd that they did not say how he died. Did he panic, did he suffer embolism, bends, pulmonary edema, a broken fingernail… how did he die? It is for that reason that I suspect that there is a measure of unnecessary drama being injected into this situation.
Adequate SCUBA training is not (at all) beyond the scope of what these young men are capable of mastering in order to affect their rescue. Ice-G has spoken. What are the concerns from the self-acclaimed experts?
by God and with honor,
Feature image: A Royal Thai Navy SEAL heads toward the bridge of the Military Sealift Command Marine Corps container roll-on/roll-off ship USNS Cpl. Louis J. Hauge, Jr. (T-AK 3011) after fast-roping onto the ship’s flight deck. A six-person Thai special forces team boarded the ship during the annual Southeast Asia Cooperation Against Terrorism (SEACAT) exercises. SEACAT is a week-long, at-sea exercise designed to highlight information sharing and multinational coordination within a scenario that provides participating navies with practical maritime interception training. | U.S. Navy photo by Edward Baxter/Released
(all photos courtesy Wikipedia Commons)