Rising Water

The Story of the Thai Cave Rescue

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About The Book

The incredible true story of the twelve boys trapped with their coach in a flooded cave in Thailand and their inspiring rescue.

On June 23, 2018, twelve members of the Wild Boars soccer team and their coach were exploring the Tham Luang cave complex in northern Thailand when disaster struck. A rainy season downpour flooded the tunnels, trapping them as they took shelter on a shelf of the dark cave. Eight days of searching yielded no signs of life, but on July 2 they were discovered by two British divers. The boys and their coach were eventually rescued in an international operation that took three days. What could have been a terrible tragedy became an amazing story of survival.

Award-winning author Marc Aronson brings us the backstory behind how this astounding rescue took place. Rising Water highlights the creative thinking and technology that made a successful mission possible by examining the physical, environmental, and psychological factors surrounding the rescue. From the brave Thai Navy SEAL who lost his life while placing oxygen tanks along the passageways of the cave, to the British divers that ultimately swam the boys to safety, to the bravery of the boys and their coach, this is the breathtaking rescue that captivated the entire world.

Rising Water 1 Wild Boars
DR. ANDREW ALAN JOHNSON, AN AMERICAN Anthropologist who lived in northern Thailand for many years, has described the area near the Tham Luang cave system as a beautiful mountain valley with sharp-sided cliffs, the hills covered with green, dense jungle. And then comes the cave system, which is “enthralling. Its entrance is broad, like a cathedral door, and during the rainy season the humidity pours out of it like steam. It looks like the gateway to another world. In some senses, it is.” Filled with inviting chambers, challenging tight corners, and branching paths, the caves are a popular destination for adventurous explorers, like the members of the Moo Pa youth soccer team.

The Moo Pa, or Wild Boars, were members of a soccer club whose players ranged in age from eleven to nineteen. Twelve players and their fit, outgoing, and good-humored assistant teacher-coach, twenty-five-year-old Ek (Ekapon Jantawong), had decided to cap off a day of practice by scrambling through the linked giant caverns and twisting, tight, and craggy passageways of the 6.4-mile- (10.3-kilometer)-long cave system.

The entrance of the Tham Luang cave as seen from the inside, in the dry season.

Nopparat Kanthawong, the team’s creator and head coach, started the group in 2015 as a free activity to give young people, especially those facing difficult lives, a chance to enjoy themselves and to improve their skills. When about seventy players across a wide range of ages joined up, Coach Kanthawong divided the players into four age groups, though the best players could “play up” into the next squad. The players in the cave cut across the age groups.

The Wild Boars practiced hard, sent some graduates on to major Thai soccer teams, and fared surprisingly well in regional tournaments—earning second place in one recent contest and taking home the championship in another. But their bonds went beyond sports. Ek created a system where an athlete’s playtime was linked to how he was doing in school. Excitement about sports led to better study habits, and better grades guaranteed more chances to excel at sports. The sports-school link was only part of what the team offered.

Out of the seventy Wild Boars, at least twenty—including three lost in the cave and Ek himself—were not Thai; their place in the country was fragile. As Coach Kanthawong explained, “All of the kids who join the team, they all wish that they would be professional soccer players. But they would not be able to do so if they don’t have nationalities.” Ek and the other “stateless” players were among the 400,000 to possibly as many as three million people in Thailand who are similar to what are called “undocumented” immigrants in the United States, with an added level of peril. They are not Thai, but if they are missing any birth information from their home country, they are also no longer citizens of the lands in which they were born.

Stateless people can live in Thailand but do not have the legal papers that would allow them to study, travel, and work throughout the country, eventually get married, or leave Thailand and return. As the coach said, they have no nationality at all. The team is a kind of home—a place to be together, bond, share, and learn away from the impossible pressure of being a person without a country.

As Ek tells it, they had been thinking about exploring the caves for a while, ever since they’d gone on a team-building bike trip together. “Hey,” he remembered someone saying, “let’s go to Tham Luang on the next trip.” Ek and three of the players had already visited the cave several times, but that only made the others more eager to get their chance.

The players who planned to visit the cave included Titan (Chanin Vibulrungruang), who was eleven and the youngest member of the team. “Titan” is a Thai pronunciation of the English word. Many Thai people are given nicknames at birth, which may often be Thai pronunciations of English words, and use those nicknames all the time except on the most formal, official occasions where they use their given first names. Though Titan was born in Thailand, his grandmother was not. He was able to visit relatives on both sides of the Thai border whenever he liked, but when she visits him, she, too, is stateless. Usually a lively, happy person with a high-pitched voice, Titan had been playing soccer for five years and liked to be a forward or a striker.

Mark (Mongkol Boonpiam) was twelve, in seventh grade, and known for rooting for Real Madrid and paying close attention to games in the Spanish elite La Liga. Like Ek, Adul, and Tee, Mark was born in Burma (also known as Myanmar) and was stateless in Thailand. (“Burma” was renamed Myanmar by its government when it was run by its military. Some who are critical of the former military rulers continue to use the older name.) Mark was as intent on his studies as on his game.

At thirteen, Mick (Panumas Sangdee), a seventh grader, was one of the younger players, but he was agile and big for his age and enjoyed being a midfielder. Dom (Duganpet Promtep) was also thirteen and in seventh grade. He was known for inspiring other players, had been named captain of the team, and had been scouted by adult Thai teams. His girlfriend, thirteen-year-old Nutchanan Ramkeaw, said he was actually scared of the dark but for that very reason liked the challenge of entering caves in order to be brave and to overcome his fears.

Later, as the story of the lost team spread over Thai media, pictures of Dom and Mark attracted special attention. Social networks buzzed with comments on how handsome they were.

Pong (Sompong Jaiwong) was thirteen, in seventh grade, played left wing, and was an avid sports fan—whether playing soccer or watching the World Cup (which was taking place just as the team entered the cave). He was rooting for England.

Fourteen-year-old Adul Sam-on—whose name was sometimes shortened to Dul—was in eighth grade, played left defender, and was known for his skill with languages, as he spoke Thai, Burmese, Chinese, Wa, and English—in Chinese class he sometimes used the name Chen Ning. Born in Burma, Adul is ethnically Wa and was stateless within Thailand. Historically the Wa lived high on hills across China and Burma. Fiercely independent, they have an area within Burma they consider their own state, and control their own army. This has led to a series of clashes, and temporary peace treaties, with the Burmese government. Unlike the overwhelming majority of Thai people, the Wa are not Buddhist and have been visited by both Buddhist and Christian missionaries. Adul, for example, was Christian.

Tern (Nattawut Takamsong) was fourteen, in eighth grade, and was relatively new to the team. He was the kind of person who took pride in being able to take care of himself. At fourteen, Bew (Ekarat Wongsukchan) was in eighth grade, and was the team’s main goalie. Note (Prajak Sutham) was also fourteen and in eighth grade. He rooted for a local team, Chiang Rai United, and played both goalie and midfielder. Fifteen-year-old Nick (Pipat Pho) was a close friend of Bew’s and in ninth grade. He was not actually on the team yet but came to the practice and followed on to the cave. Tee (Pornchai Kamluang) was sixteen, in tenth grade, a defender, and had discussed the trip with his girlfriend before the team went into the cave. Tee was ethnically Tai Yai. Born in Burma, he too was stateless in Thailand.

Finally, Night (Peerapat Sompiangjai), who turned seventeen the day the team entered the cave, was in ninth grade and was a right winger. (Some Thai people who use the nickname “Night” prefer to see it as “Knight”—which of course is possible, since the English words sound the same.)
Saturday, June 23
The team planned out the day carefully. First, starting at ten in the morning, they played a warm-up game about two miles (3.2 kilometers) from the caves. After they finished the match, they biked over to the caves, “since everyone was curious.” The caves, which are an international as well as local attraction in the dry season, beckoned, but the team members were all watching the clock. One player needed to be back by five o’clock to meet his tutor. Night’s parents had planned a birthday party for him, complete with SpongeBob cakes. The whole team had been invited to come, and no one wanted to disappoint his parents by being late. Once they reached the cave, they would have about four hours to explore its inviting caverns.

Around noon the team biked over to Tham Luang with their backpacks and had lunch and snacks. The interlinked corridors of the cave system are dry—sometimes. The sequence of chambers and narrow passages weaves its way inside limestone hills that were once the bottom of an ancient seabed. Created through the endless accumulation, combination, and crushing of seashells, limestone resembles hardened sponges.

The full name of the cave system is Tham Luang Nang Non—“the Royal Cave of the Reclining Woman,” and there is a story behind the name. The cave is located in the far northern corner of Thailand. This wedge of the country is so close to Burma and Laos that it is called the Golden Triangle. The term is not meant as a compliment—the loose borders were exploited for many years by drug smugglers bringing first opium and later methamphetamine from creators to markets. The Thai government helped to shut down the opium traffic, but the drug smuggling is so well known in the area that there is a museum called the Hall of Opium that seeks to entice curious tourists. And the easy pathways from one nation to another are one reason why there are many stateless people in the area. A family may bring a child across the border to Thailand to give him or her a better start in life—even though the child will face the challenge of not having Thai residency papers. The overlapping histories of peoples in the region can also be seen in the story of the cave.

According to the legend, many years ago a princess from Burma fell in love with a man who was not royal, and she became pregnant. Her parents were furious, and she fled from them into the cave. When her father’s soldiers followed her, she took her own life. Her body is said to have formed the mountains, and the cave is the passage in—haunted by wounded, angry spirits. The spirits look like a cross between ogres and giants. They are frightening but also in pain, and capable of being healed. A modern shrine to the spirit of the princess stands at the cave mouth. As Dr. Johnson explains, a common view in Thailand is that you don’t need to believe in spirits, but you also don’t want to offend them.

There is good reason to treat the caves with respect. Interlaced with countless crevices and tiny tunnels, the limestone walls of the cave are extremely porous. For four months of the year, storm systems begin gathering moisture over the Indian Ocean and sweep across Thailand. These monsoons send black clouds scudding across the sky and pour down sheets of driving rain. The falling water cascades through the rocks, creating flash floods that inundate the cave. Caverns instantly become lakes, tight passageways fill floor to ceiling with water, and the slope of the ground creates a current flowing from deep in the cave system out toward its mouth. That enticing gateway now gushes water—looking, the Belgian diver Ben Reymenants has said, like white water churning on the Colorado River. A sign warns no one to enter during the rainy season from July to November. But since it was still June and the previous year the rains did not begin until mid-July, the team thought they were safe.

A guide to the caves describes them as being at the bottom of a “magnificent” semicircle of cliffs filled with “lush evergreen forest.” The wide opening Dr. Johnson described invites explorers to enter, and for about a half mile (one kilometer) there is an easy walk, part of which is paved with cement. From there visitors navigate through boulders until the passage narrows down to a space some six and a half feet (two meters) wide and about ten feet (three meters) high. Past the opening chamber, the caverns let in no light and there are no pathways. Explorers need to wedge themselves between jagged rocks, finding pathways up, down, into and out of whatever space they can manage to see. Those who make it through soon reach even tighter tunnels in which they need to crawl to reach the next high, open chamber. From the easy entry to the challenging crevices, the caves drew Ek and the boys ever farther into their depths.
About The Author
Photograph © Marina

Marc Aronson is the acclaimed author of Trapped: How the World Rescued 33 Miners from 2,000 Feet Below the Chilean Desert, which earned four starred reviews. He is also the author of Sir Walter Ralegh and the Quest for El Dorado, winner of the ALA’s first Robert L. Sibert Award for nonfiction and the Boston Globe–Horn Book Award. He has won the LMP award for editing and has a PhD in American history from NYU. Marc is a member of the full-time faculty in the graduate program of the Rutgers School of Communication and Information. He lives in Maplewood, New Jersey, with his wife, Marina Budhos, and sons. You can visit him online at MarcAronson.com.

Product Details
  • Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers (March 2019)
  • Length: 160 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781534444133
  • Grades: 5 - 9
  • Ages: 10 - 14

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Raves and Reviews

* “Despite the concise narration, the gravity of the rescue is never dampened. Aronson is mindful in his descriptions of differences in cultures and takes care not to filter them through Western assumptions. He also includes a chapter openly describing gaps in his research and account due to key players' personal or political biases. . . . Solid writing preserves the natural rising suspense and astonishing details of this rescue.”

– Kirkus Reviews, Starred Review

“Told in a breakneck chronological sequence, those familiar with the outcome of the story are still left breathless by the pace of the storytelling. . . . With respect paid to all countries that sent individuals to help problem-solve for the crisis, this will be a useful text in the classroom and a heart-pounding narrative nonfiction title for individual readers. Highly recommended.”

– School Library Connection

“Aronson makes the event feel new through his deeply detailed research and his ability to share pertinent information that news organizations may have ignored. . . . A thorough, engaging, and inspiring book.”

– School Library Journal

“Aronson takes readers beyond the headlines and into the action of this harrowing event. . . . The text quickly gains momentum as Aronson recounts some of the suspenseful life-or-death moments as divers brought each boy out one by one.”

– Booklist

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