The heroes of the Thai cave rescue


We were foreigners and we weren’t going somewhere foreigners often go, so when I saw the blond man across the Bangkok airport shuttle bus on our way to the remote mountains of Chiang Rai, a one-hour flight away, I asked whether he was about do the one thing or the other: “Are you rescuing the boys or covering the rescue?”

“Well, we’re hoping we can help rescue them,” he said. He didn’t seem hopeful. He seemed grim. We stepped off the bus onto the hot tarmac and walked toward the plane.

“You never know,” I said. “It could happen.” Save 12 children and their soccer coach who got stranded three kilometres inside a flooded cave in northern Thailand at the start of the rainy season with no known food, water or swimming skills: It could never happen.

He nodded. “You never know.”

We climbed the rickety boarding ramp and found our seats, his behind mine. He was too calm. I turned around over the back of my chair. “Have you ever helped rescue many people from a cave before?”

A pause. “Not live ones,” he said.

The plane took off. Only when it landed and we were standing in the aisle did I ask what the world had wondered for days.

“Don’t you think it might be better to just wait out the rain and send in supplies?”

He was quiet but firm. “I think it’s better to try.”

“Men are really going to dive them out.”

“That’s the plan.”

We looked at each other. If I had known who he was, maybe I wouldn’t have worried so much. Maybe I would have worried more. Either way, the events of the next few days were as yet opaque to me: there would be children’s lifeless bodies yanked through paralyzing water; fingernails digging into rock walls and human skin; a cable wrapped around a neck; a strap binding a pair of wrists; a needle stabbed into a thigh; a skull smashed into rock; a lifeline drifting out of reach, out of sight, into the black. That afternoon I saw only a light-blue button-down shirt and kind eyes.

We disembarked, walked through the gate and passed a stretch of windows. He raised his hand to stop me.

“What’s this?” Through the glass, rows of military men stood at attention on the tarmac. They were saluting a coffin. My flightmate answered his own question. “They’re here for the dead diver.”

A former Royal Thai Navy SEAL had just died in the cave. I wondered how it had happened. “He probably hadn’t done anything like this before,” the man said. Who has, I thought.

We turned to the escalator, and when he spoke next it wasn’t to me. “This is not a good way for me to arrive.”

“Good luck,” I said when we hit the bottom.

“You keep yourself safe.” He winked and was gone.

Monks with a portrait of the former Thai Navy SEAL member Saman Gunan, a 38-year-old volunteer diver who died during the rescue operation. Ben C. Solomon/The New York Times/Redux Pictures

Ben Reymenants from Belgium is tall and dark and handsome and famous for record-breaking depths and encounters with rare and exotic species of sea worms—for these reasons and more, and perhaps despite his uncommonly successful dive shop in Phuket, Thailand, Ben is worshipped among certain diver sects. “One of the top 10 cave divers in the world,” some call him. “No, no,” he’ll say. A smile: “Maybe one of the top living cave divers.” Cave divers are explorers, always looking for the next new thing—fish, pirate ship, psychological limit, anything—and Ben occasionally finds it.

Today he is looking for a soccer team who entered Tham Luang cave a few days ago. Eventually he will discover something else: he can be replaced. At this particular moment, Ben only knows he can’t breathe properly.

His chest is currently being crushed between the floor and the low ceiling of a flooded cave. He got here because the players and their team’s assistant coach, after bicycling to the cave, walked in to explore it and never walked out. Rainwater racing down the mountain and into every rocky crevice penned them in, maybe drowned them. Park rangers found the bikes by the cave mouth. Royal Thai Navy SEALs entered. Tham Luang is several kilometres of cavernous rooms with soaring ceilings leading to pinhole passageways leading to more cavernous rooms. Some were above the waterline when it flooded; most were below. The SEALs entered the black cathedral of the first chamber, stalactites plunging from the ceiling, boulders exploding from the floor. This cave made the grown men feel small. Then it squeezed the life out of them: some corridors were so narrow only skinnier divers could get through. It dwarfed them again, squeezed them tight again, but within three kilometres and a day and a half, the SEALs pressed on to Monk’s Junction, where the cave split in two and rapids could rip a mask off. They wanted to reach Pattaya Beach, the long patch of dry, rocky land in an air chamber where they thought they might find the boys. Instead, the floodwaters rushed at them and they had to retreat.

The cave’s currents were impossible. Visibility was also impossible: even the diver’s headlamps, pinpricks of light in the suffocating blackness of the cave, could barely penetrate the mud-filled water. The constricted sumps—submerged underwater passages—were worse than impossible: they were deadly. Trained only in open-water diving with the old-timey single back-mounted air cylinder you can get away with in a vast ocean but not in a narrow sump, SEALs had gone as far as they could alone. They needed the specialists.

A SEAL volunteer liaison had called Ben to the cave. When Ben first entered, he learned that two Britons—firefighter Rick Stanton and IT consultant John Volanthen, two of the top cave rescuers in the world, living or dead—were already there, working closely with the Chiang Rai governor. In the coming days, more Europeans and Brits would join them. They were various kinds of cave divers. The Europeans: dive shop owners, entrepreneurs of the underwater world. The Brits: caving hobbyists and rescue society volunteers who pulled their fins over green wellies because the point of getting in the water, for them, was to trek deeper into a dank cave. The men knew of each other. That’s a different thing from really knowing each other.

When Ben discovered the Brits at the cave, they had made a discovery too: four men on a bank around 800 m from the cave entrance, penned in by three sumps. Rick and John got them out. It was never determined whether they’d sneaked into the cave to snap photos or were left behind through some cave rescue clerical error, but people had other things to worry about. The boys.

The first time Ben dived in, the current knocked him back. He dived in again. He made it into a tight passage. He didn’t make it farther. And that is how Ben the scuba god has come to be trapped.

Strength is useless. Skill is useless. Only by emptying his lungs can he flatten his body enough to move an inch backwards. Then another inch. Then another. Breathe out, inch back. Breathe out, inch back. Finally he’s free. Ben is in this cave because of his experience. His experience tells him no amount of experience can beat this cave. Soon more monsoon rains will fall.

The next morning, Ben goes back to the cave to retrieve his gear. He finds the SEALs getting ready to dive. A suicide mission.

“I can’t let these guys go in on their own,” he tells the Thai liaison. “I can at least go in with them and hope they get scared enough to turn around.”

The SEALs’ rear admiral is way ahead of him. A short man, he climbs up on a chair outside the cave. Get in line, he tells the SEALs. “You too,” he says to Ben.

A Thai monk had predicted the boys would be found alive; therefore, the boys will be found alive. The monk made and blessed bracelets for the SEALs. The admiral ties one around Ben’s wrist.

Ben doesn’t think prayers will save them. He tries to buy time for the Thais to change their minds. I need more rope, he says—a very specific, hard-to-find sort of rope. Rope appears. Okay, I need more air tanks. A chopper airlifts in four hundred. Fine. I need men, hoses, food. Check, check, check. Whatever Ben pretends to wish for, it’s granted.

Ben accepts defeat. “I have all the toys and no more excuses,” he thinks. Into the cave he goes.

He takes 20 SEALs with him. He finds people laying the line. In cave diving, the line can be a flag in the ground telling divers which other diver beat them to it. It’s also a lifeline. In the black of a deep, muddy cave, where divers might as well be blind, they can grab and follow the nylon cord through the treacherous passageways. These men need a lifeline.

Ben goes under. He’s gone for a while. When he comes up, the SEALs think he’s lost the line. He’s laid it farther.

He hears a Thai diver shout, “Ben laid the line!” Ben will see the diver’s name in a newspaper more than a week from now: Saman Gunan. It’s his coffin I’ll watch officers saluting on the tarmac at the Chiang Rai airport.

More Europeans, having heard that the cave needs divers, go in to lay the line just past Monk’s Junction, where the cave splits left and right. Again, Ben gets stuck. This time, a European has to use nearly a full tank of air pulling Ben out by his ankles. Finally, Ben makes it to Monk’s Junction. He lays the line to the split. In several days, the man who replaces Ben will follow that line in an attempt to rescue boys who right now most people believe must be dead. They know they’re nearing the bodies. Then Ben runs out of line.

He heads back. The Brits are going in. Ben thinks the Brits—Rick and John—will lay the line close to where the kids are; he also thinks they will turn back before they discover them. The SEALs want to find their people’s kids. He, and some Thais, too, think the Brits understand. Cave divers might understand this more than most. Every explorer wants to be the first in line.

But no one cares when first contact doesn’t go according to that plan—when, after Ben leaves the cave that day, the world hears not a Thai but a British voice calling out these words in a grainy video: “How many of you? Thirteen? Brilliant!”

The Europeans are in their hotel when they hear the boys are alive. A Ukrainian raises a glass of vodka to the discovery. Ben tells him to put it down. They might be needed.

Back at the site, they congratulate the Brits. “We come!” the Brits had assured the boys; the boys coming out alive is a different thing, though. The Brits don’t want to talk to Ben about getting the kids out. He fights with some of them.

“Why won’t you be part of the team?” Ben shouts. Maybe the Brits are the team, though. Maybe Ben doesn’t fit. The Thai liaison pulls Ben away. “This isn’t the right time,” he says.

Ben agrees. He’s no god. He knows it. He’s a guy who needs a breather. The next morning, he boards a flight out of Chiang Rai: he can’t help a team that may not want him. Some European divers follow. Some stay.

Finnish diver Mikko Paasi (L), Canadian Erik Brown (R) and Ivan Karadzic (back) on the way to the rescue operations at the cave. Pongmanat Tasiri/EPA/CP

It’s a couple of days later and there is more shouting outside the cave. Claus Rasmussen, a Dane, has lived in Thailand for 15 years and works at Ben’s Phuket dive shop. He thinks he’s ancient in dive instructor terms: he’s 45. In previous lives, he’s worked with refugees, homeless people, drug addicts. He’s seen a lot, inside caves and out. Right now he’s seeing checkpoint guards delivering clear orders to his fellow divers, Erik Brown and Ivan Karadzic: take a seat. They take a seat and wait outside the cave in their wetsuits.

Erik and Ivan run dive shops a few beach bars away from each other on Koh Tao, an island renowned for two primary tourist occupations: diving and drunkenness. Ivan is a Danish hippie with a brush cut; Erik is a long-haired surfer who was forced to retire from surfing when he busted his shoulder—he is no hippie. Ivan went to Thailand on vacation a couple of decades ago and never went home. He came to think of cave divers as a secret society—they want respect from their own, and they don’t care if people who know nothing about cave diving know their names. Erik is broad-built with long hair and a serious face. From Vancouver, he’ll be the mission’s lone Canadian but a member of Team Europe, shorthand for Team-Europe-Plus-One-Canadian. Erik has been on Koh Tao only a few years and already worries he’ll become another dude in Thailand with a Peter Pan complex. Neither man makes millions teaching tourists to dive, but neither thinks twice about buying plane tickets to reach the cave. They’re told to wait—they wait.

Claus knows he and his fellow Europeans can support the rescue mission. He just needs to convince the Brits. He meets with representatives of the British team and American Special Forces to talk rescue options. All the options are bad. One is slightly less bad.

Option one: Believe the children’s claims that they heard roosters crowing. Assume there is a chimney in the mountaintop leading to the kids and their coach. Find it, somehow. Pull the team out, somehow.

Option two: Assume there is no chimney. Make one. Drill through the rock—700 m. Pull the team out—700 m.

Option three: Leave the kids and their coach in the cave. In the dark. For four months. Send in food, letters and medical support. Wait for the rain to stop. For four months. Bring the team out the way they came in.

Option four: Do what no one has ever done before. Bring a dozen children and one adult, none of whom know how to dive or probably even swim, through a few kilometres of flooded cave in almost zero visibility and torrid currents.

Option one is unrealistic: the kids are probably hallucinating about the roosters. Option two is deadly: drilling could crush the children under falling rocks. Option three is torture: stuck on that small patch of dirt in the dark, surviving on water dripping off stalactites, the kids hadn’t lasted a few days before trying to claw their way out by scratching at the rock face with their bare hands; four months would be unendurable. And option four is madness. No one has ever tried anything like it before. Divers might die. The ones who don’t die might have to carry out a dozen dead children.

Tonight, the men choose madness. They want to dive the kids out. The Brits will select the foreign support divers they lead. The Europeans plus one Canadian at the cave are on the team.

* * *

One of the original Brits, Rick, asks another British diver, Chris Jewell, if he’s sure he wants to meet the boys. Many men wouldn’t want to see children they know will soon be dead.

Chris, a computer programmer from Cheddar, England, is sure of most things, none more so than himself. Most men avoid tight spaces, steep climbs and the dark. These things feel like death, and Chris isn’t afraid of that. He likes cave diving because most men can’t do it and he can do it because he doesn’t panic. “If you panic, it’s curtains,” he’ll say. “You can’t control your heartbeat but you can control your breathing.” Chris knows he can do that, too.

He isn’t sure about meeting the boys. He dives in on a supply run with another Brit, Jason Mallinson; Jason makes the decision for both of them. When Chris surfaces metres from the team, Jason is already walking up the bank. “I guess I’m meeting the kids,” Chris thought.

Quick, strong and fit, Chris can’t climb the muddy bank without slipping and falling. The boys are making fools of the men, he notes. Rescuers who swooped in from around the world can barely stand as the children skip down to the water’s edge and back up like little mountain goats.

They’re so alive.

* * *

This photo provided by the Thai Navy SEALs shows the trapped teens in the cave in northern Thailand, on July 2, 2018. Xinhua News Agency/eyevine/Redux Pictures

Claus bows his head before a shrine outside the cave. Caves are sacred in Thailand. He won’t enter without asking permission from the Lady of the Cave, as she’s known around here. The curves of her reclining figure stretch across the rounded mountaintops, holding the children deep inside her caverns. He doesn’t know exactly what it means to pray to her, but he knows it means something to the Thais.

The Europeans have permission from Thai officials to enter the mouth of the cave now. One will be repelled almost as soon as he enters.

Inside, wires and cables drift like seaweed in the dark water. Installed in haste after the boys disappeared, divers are cleaning them up to bring the children—or their bodies—through. Claus is cutting telephone cable wrapped around the main line when he feels a German diver coming up behind him. No problem. The cable tightens around his fingers. Problem. The German must have passed him in the dark and pulled the cord along with him. Claus starts swimming madly. The German has the cable tangled around himself. When Claus reaches him, the German has stopped. Claus can hear him breathing. A bad sign. The German was on a rebreather, which purifies a diver’s exhaled breath and mixes it with oxygen; rebreathers are soundless. If Claus can hear the German’s breath being exhaled into the water, it means something got in the way of the rebreather, and he’s in enough trouble he had to bail out and go on standard open circuit. The visibility is so bad that Claus can’t make out what went wrong, but the German is cutting off wires, taking off tanks. Claus makes physical contact, puts his hand right up to the German’s mask so he can see the hand signals. He makes the “okay” sign with his thumb and forefinger. Is he okay?

Yes, the German is okay. But he’s shaken: He’d come down with a bug; he has loved ones; he’s just tried to penetrate a cave and it has casually discarded him. He’s leaving.

As the German retreats, Claus, Ivan, Erik and Ivan’s business partner in Koh Tao, Mikko Paasi from Finland, push ahead, getting a sense of the cave. By the time they make their way out, they pass a Thai team going in. They chat with an English-speaking Thai diver in an air pocket and tell him how far up they’ve placed air tanks. It’s gruelling, essential work: each tank weighs 35 lb.; a tank won’t last a single hour; journeying through the cave takes several hours. The Thai diver is Saman, the former SEAL who will die later that day, placing more tanks. Maybe his air ran out. Maybe he panicked. Maybe, as the man I met on the airport shuttle bus later suggests, he’d just never done anything like this before.

Saman’s death is not the only one horrifying Thailand: a tourist boat has sunk off the coast of Phuket and more than 40 people have drowned. Divers from around Thailand are descending on the wreck to pull bodies out of the water. The European divers feel sick for their friends. They also wonder if they’ll soon complete a similar task in the cave.

The mission needs more men: some to support the men who are there; some to replace the men who will fall sick or quit or die; and one man who has no replacement.

In addition to putting out a wider call for support, the Brits ask Australian Dr. Richard “Harry” Harris to call off a planned diving holiday and travel from his Adelaide home to the cave. Everyone wants him there for three reasons. First, Dr. Harry is a top-notch cave diver: in 2012, he made a record-breaking descent into the world’s deepest cold-water cave. Second, Dr. Harry is an anaesthesiologist: he specializes in keeping people safe and comfortable in critical situations such as surgery—or, somewhat less commonly, subterranean underwater retrievals. And third: people love him. They just do. He’s humble and funny and nice. Even people who have never met him love him. “I would have loved to have been at the cave. Just to have met Dr. Harry,” sighs one diver left behind on Koh Tao. Few in this world possess any one of these qualities. Maybe only Dr. Harry has all three.

Ben is called back to the cave by a Thai liaison working with the SEALs. When Ben lands at the Chiang Rai airport for the second time, the liaison says, “We have a problem.” Someone has been handing out posters claiming the governor has banned Ben from the cave. Ben and the liaison think the posters are fake: whoever pulled photos of Ben off Facebook didn’t exactly create an official-looking document. They also understand that it doesn’t matter if it’s fake. One overzealous police officer, one photo of a diver in handcuffs, and the mission looks bad. For now, Ben shouldn’t enter the cave. But the mission might need another man. The team might need him to be that man. He goes to the cave. He pulls up a chair outside. He sits and he waits. He does not know he is waiting to be replaced.

* * *

In a little village in Ireland lives an elfin man named Jim. Jim Warny doesn’t quite fit. He lives in Ireland but was born in Belgium. He caves more but dived first. He used to work in dive shops as an instructor but now works in a factory as an electrician. He knows the British rescue team members, but maybe not as well as they know each other, and his name isn’t known to many others.

He came to know the Brits better when his friend Artur Kozlowski disappeared during a dive seven years ago. The first day, Jim found nothing. The second day, he called the British Cave Rescue Council. Rick, John and Jason answered. Jim couldn’t bear to recover the lifeless body he’d discovered drifting in the water. He wanted to help his friend and needed other men to help him.

While Saman’s body is being recovered from the cave, Jim thinks about the Brits on-site. He thinks about the long cave and the children stranded at the back of it. He’s sure it’s better to leave the boys in until everything dries out. But also he thinks about the small crew and the men who helped him recover his friend. Jim sends the Brits a Facebook message.

“I’m here if you need me.”

At home, Jim asks his fiancée what she thinks. She’s thinking the best divers in the world are already there. “Why would they need you?” she asks. She walks upstairs. By the time she comes down, Jim is on the phone with his boss, getting time off from the factory. Chris has told him to pack his bags.

Jim Warny in Beagh River Sink, Ireland, where he did a lot of exploratory diving. John Shmidt

When I found the cave site, a diver was being mobbed in the media area, which at one point was, to some rescuers’ great regret (though possibly not to others’), the only route to the toilets. “Media area” was a polite descriptor for the mud pen in which hundreds of cameras were corralled. An Aussie TV reporter took pity on me, pointing me to a blue tent overflowing with donated rain boots and plastic ponchos, but I was worried about the foreign volunteer I had met on the plane, that he might get hurt in the cave. No one could point me in his direction. And that day there were bigger questions on people’s minds. In the letters the boys’ parents wrote, delivered to their children by divers, they said they prayed for the team’s assistant coach—the man who allowed them to enter the cave.

It didn’t make sense. Leaving the mud pit, I wandered the coach’s neighbourhood and found his next-door neighbour grilling chicken outside her corrugated-tin-walled bungalow. When I asked why people weren’t angry with the coach, she corrected me. Not just a coach: a former monk. After practice, he would occasionally take some of the boys to a nearby temple. At the edge of that temple stands a cave, much smaller than Tham Luang. The monk would light a candle with the boys, they would slip inside the mouth of this cave, and they would pray. Word had slipped out, locals said, that after they got stuck in Tham Luang, the monk kept the children alive by teaching them to meditate.

Parents offered the monk thanks, not forgiveness. While men furiously pumped out water, placed air tanks and carried lights, the monk was instructing 12 young boys that they had a job, too. They had to breathe.

Relatives pray at a shrine on the front of Tham Luang Nang Non cave on June 28, 2018, in Chiang Rai. Linh Pham/Getty Images

The day before the rescue, everything is ready. Several options have been duly considered and politely dismissed. The kids won’t be confined to airtight metal coffins, as Elon Musk has proposed, or made to crawl through a several-kilometres-long inflatable bouncy castle tube, as one Bangkok construction company suggested. No: their faces will be covered by full-face masks and their bodies dragged underwater. Separately, in 45-minute intervals, four lead divers will each take a child through two kilometres of watery passageways and treacherous boulders with only their hands to guide them along a single thread, before delivering them to Station 3—call it Grand Central—where teams of medical support will await to hurry them through the rest of the cave, pumped mostly dry. The terrain the divers will traverse will be dotted with four manned diving stations, banks of land in air chambers equipped with air and oxygen tanks, with only a couple of support divers at each. These support divers, with only their dive buddy, will wait to offer assistance to each lead diver bringing a child through. Most support divers will be European; all lead divers will be British. At least that is the plan. Onward to the drills.

First, the pool drills. Little boys plucked from a local school shiver in a nearby pool, testing the smallest full-face masks sourced from around the world. Divers practice hauling the boys face-down through the water to see if the masks leak. Unlike the more common half-masks, with which a diver uses a regulator mouthpiece to breathe, full-face masks use pressure to push air out, making it more difficult for water to seep in. Full-face masks must be sealed airtight, though—if water were to seep in through a too-large mask, the mask would flood and the child could drown. They don’t make full-face masks for children. These masks may not be small enough. But onward.

Next, the rock drill. Like a special forces team drawing lines in the sand with rocks and branches to map out an attack, the divers walk through a miniature mock-up cave in a parking lot. Police tape wrapped around sticks signifies the route along the main guide line the divers will follow out of the cave. Plastic half-litre water bottles wrapped with different colours of tape signify people and tanks: red for the children and the coach, blue for air tanks for the divers, green for oxygen tanks for the children. (If something goes wrong, it will be easier to revive someone who has been breathing pure oxygen.) Here, enacted in the rock drill, is “the plan”: extract four of the cave’s prisoners, one at a time, dead or alive, on each of three rescue days—plus a fifth on the third day. Thirteen red bottles are placed near the stick marking the spot where the soccer team has been stranded for two weeks. It begins: Is Station 6 that bit of mud or that bit of mud? Do we need more tanks here and fewer there? Fewer here and more there? This is the only time divers see the cave in anything approximating light. Still, onward.

To the sedation drill.

Australian divers Dr Richard Harris, left, and Craig Challen. Heather Endall

A word about sedation. A word, too, about Dr. Harry.

Anaesthesiology requires more training than most branches of medicine; there is always some risk that when a patient is put under, he or she will never wake up. When the patient is a child, the risks are greater. When the child is yanked along underwater for hours through a dark, cold cave, the risks are incalculable—no one has ever done anything like this before.

Dr. Harry believes the risks of sedating the children beat the risks of not sedating the children. The lead divers believe the same, and the Thais believe the experts know best. The children cannot dive; the children will panic; the children will drown their rescuers and themselves. That is why Dr. Harry is going to do this: inject 12 kids with a sedative so powerful it will knock them out cold.

Ketamine: a horse tranquilizer, an operating-room drug, a soon-to-be cave-rescue pharmaceutical product in its early testing stages on rock-entombed human minors.

If only it were so simple. The children’s drugs will need to be topped up with half-doses along the way. Dr. Harry cannot dive every child out himself, but the divers are not medical doctors. Dr. Harry must give a dozen cave hobbyists and small-business owners a crash course in do-it-yourself anaesthesiology.

If anyone dies—and many divers think they will be lucky to save two or three of the kids—Dr. Harry will bear much of the burden. He is not licensed to practice medicine in Thailand, let alone teach other foreigners to practice. Though Thailand and Australia have offered some assurance that he won’t suffer legal consequences for his young patients’ probable deaths, a conscience and a name are not so easily protected.

Cave divers are solitary creatures, Dr. Harry will later say to the cameras he normally avoids. And as he instructs laymen how to sedate a bunch of boys in the dark before dragging them through a flooded, stalactite-strewn tunnel, Dr. Harry is very alone.

He thinks the drugs might help some children survive. He’s going to try, anyway. That’s the plan. But you never know.

* * *

So. The sedation drill. One last water bottle is put to use. Dr. Harry holds it up. With his other hand, he raises a needle in the air. Is everyone listening? He will be fully sedating the children, but the injection he administers won’t last the whole of the journey, so when a child begins to wake, the diver must do this: brace one hand against the boy’s thigh—here, like so, Dr. Harry demonstrates, and stabs the needle into the bottle. Don’t worry about finding a vein. Just get the needle into muscle. Far, but not too far—not into bone. Inject the child with the drugs. Then: onward.

The pool drill, the rock drill, the sedation drill. Everything is done. Everything but the thing that’s never been done.

Onward, sure. But where to?

Members of the Royal Thai Navy along with volunteers from England, the United States, Australia, and China prepare for the rescue. Royal Thai Navy/UPI Photo/Newscom/Alamy Live News

DAY ONE OF RESCUE

Today, the mission begins. Either four boys will be rescued or their bodies will be recovered; the bodies of divers may be recovered, too. Jim, the Belgian elf from Ireland, has been called in so late that when he arrives at the site, the other Brits are suited up and coming out of the changing room beside the cave. He’s missed the pool drill, the rock drill, the sedation drill. But Jim’s here for the mission.

He enters the cave. It isn’t like any cave he’s seen. There are pumps, electrical cables, pipes, lights, food, Wi-Fi, legions of people. Some guys watch the World Cup nearby. Jim doesn’t have to carry a thing: American Special Forces insist on taking in the divers’ gear; one guy’s favourite is the stocky American who calls himself “the Donkey.” “Hee haw, hee haw! Load me up! Hee haw!”

Past a stream, over boulders and through the ad hoc rescue mission village, Jim makes it the 800 m to the water’s edge in Grand Central Station 3. He’s travelling with his station-mate, Connor Roe, another Brit. They will be the last support divers in the chain. Two Brits are waiting to tell Jim and Connor what to expect before they get in the water.

Their mission: give the leads what they need.

Of course.

Cave directions: head that way, to Chamber 5.

Sure.

Cave conditions: okay flow, shit visibility.

Okay.

The drugs: The kids will be rendered unconscious with drugs.

Got it. Wait. What?

This is the first Jim has heard of drugs. His mind floods with scenes of horror: children’s bodies, cold, floating face down in the water; divers trying to revive them; somewhere in the distance, the corpse of Jim’s friend. Something feels like death here, and Jim’s afraid it’s going to be their fault.

The other divers have begun the long dive to their own stations. Jim can turn back, but the mission will press on. Far beyond him, on another bank deep inside the cave, Dr. Harry will soon be preparing his syringe, about to tell a child who can’t recognize his words but might understand his gentle tone that this won’t hurt a bit. There, just a little pinch... isn’t he a good boy, he is such a good boy, he is so brave, he is the strongest of all the boys. A few kilometres closer to the light, Jim tells himself he only has to do what he tries to do whenever he enters a cave: something no man has done before. That’s all. The search for something new is always the same.

Jim dives into the black.

* * *

Two of the farthest support divers from Jim, Thailand’s adopted Danish son, Claus, and his Finnish station-mate, Mikko, have lost their station in the cave. They don’t know where Station 7 is, but they know it’s somewhere in this large, open section. This is the deepest in the cave they have been. Is their station a dry area or a wet area? Is it a rock or another rock?

Wherever it is, their station is near a large section of land that will require carrying the boys over slippery boulders while the water rises and falls, wrapped in a cloth stretcher called a sked. Skeds are usually used to carry casualties off the battlefield.

The men pick a rock surrounded by water. There. This is their station. They sit. And they wait.

* * *

On their way to Station 6, Erik has lost Ivan; Ivan has lost the line. Ivan was supposed to dive ahead of Erik after Grand Central Station 3. Visibility is so bad they can’t see their own hands gripping the line, so they have to rendezvous in air pockets to keep track of each other. Ivan goes too far from the line—in the black, Erik passes him. Erik surfaces in an air pocket and doesn’t see Ivan. He dives back in and continues. When Ivan surfaces, he assumes Erik must be taking his time. He dives back in; surfaces again; again, no Erik. He sits on a bank and he waits.

Aside from exploration, what Ivan loves most about cave diving is the meditating. Underwater in the dark, there is only your hand on or near the line. If you don’t focus on your hand, your thoughts may take control. This is how you keep calm: hand, hand, hand. As Ivan sits in silence, the silence lasts for 20 minutes, maybe more. His thoughts take control.

“Ding-a-ding-a-ding!”

Ivan hears a cell phone. It’s preposterous. There is no cell reception in the cave. He understands now how the children thought they heard roosters. He’d rather head back the way he came and look for Erik than sit in maddening isolation. He dives back in and puts his hand on the line.

Eventually, Ivan and Erik find each other at Station 6, a long stretch of very steep bank they must haul tanks up and down when lead divers need replacements. Ivan is not too late for the mission, but he is too late for Erik. Any later, a lead diver might have shown up with a child needing help only to find that the help had f--ked off. Erik dresses like a beachcomber, swears like a sailor and drinks like a pirate, but when he’s told by military men to be on time to rescue little kids, Erik is on time.

“Don’t talk to me right now,” Erik says to Ivan.

Erik and Ivan sit and they wait.

* * *

Jim and Connor, too, are lost on their way to Station 5. Jim has dived in from Grand Central Station 3 ahead of Connor and found the line snaking down and up into a pocket of air, suspended in a crack in the cave wall. He tells Connor to go back and look. Connor goes back and looks. They find the right line and get themselves to Station 5, the last manned station before the lead diver has to deliver his boy to the bustling Grand Central Station 3 where medical support awaits. And they wait.

* * *

Finally, all have found their places. There they are: a dozen men from all over the world positioned in air chambers along a couple of kilometres of cave. Four hundred and fifty metres of diving from Grand Central Station 3, Jim and Connor, having only just arrived, are waiting on the small bank at Station 5 along a 150-m, waist-deep canal; 300 m beyond them, Erik and Ivan are waiting in silence at Station 6 along another 150-m, waist-deep canal; 250 m farther along, around Monk’s Junction, Claus, Mikko and Craig Challen, an Aussie, are waiting on the boulders and beaches of stations 7 and 8 in a large air space around Pattaya Beach, divers ready to stake their reputations on rock scrambling. At the very end, after the last 350 m of diving, are John, Jason, Chris and Rick, standing on a little ledge with a dozen small boys who don’t know how to dive and look less nervous than the divers feel—and, at the edge of that bank, Dr. Harry, preparing his syringe. These men have different skill levels and backgrounds and reputations, and today they will perform different roles in a rescue operation of a kind humanity has never seen, but they are the same. They live to be first to put their name on a bit of line, to make that line their own, to take that line farther than the last man, who had to tie off his line when he reached his limit. They believe the impossible is a hallucination to be overcome. They look for first sightings in the dark. They breathe underwater.

But they know that the impossible might remain impossible today. They only think it is better to try. They can’t wait any longer. The rain is coming. The children are tiring. The world is watching. They may have no chance against impossible odds, but if they do, it is here. If they blink, it’s gone.

* * *

This is how it begins: on the bank where the soccer team is stranded, Dr. Harry takes one of the children away from the rest. He tells the boy he is a good boy, a brave boy, the best boy. He pulls out the needle. Then he pushes it in.

Once the child is unconscious, his mask is strapped on and his head is submerged and sloshed around. One of the lead British divers checks the mask isn’t leaking. Additional precautions are taken: In case the boy wakes up or the passages are too narrow, the child’s arms are bound with cord so it will be harder for him to drown the diver or hurt himself. And in case the diver drops the child when he is bundled into a cloth stretcher, or smacks the child’s head on the ceiling of the cave while they’re diving through it, bubble wrap is stuffed into the hood of the boy’s wetsuit.

The cave diver’s specialty is planning for every case. He doesn’t carry just one regulator or one tank or one flashlight. As for air, he follows the rule of thirds: a third of the total air supply to go in, a third to come out and a third for something to go very wrong.

But every diver understands these words from Ivan, the ageless hippie from Koh Tao: “If you don’t want to die in a cave, there’s only one sure thing you can do: don’t go in.” It is the conceit of exploration to prepare for what cannot be known. You can look out, but you can’t always see.

With a child in one hand and a line in the other, the first diver starts to swim.

* * *

“What the bloody hell are you doing here?!”

It is dark here. No one quite knows where “here” is.

Jason has emerged from the water with a child and is yelling at Claus and Mikko, who are waiting on a small rock at what they have decided must be Station 7. Jason thought they were supposed to wait on another rock. Jason’s boy is fine, but he knows the next one may not be. Claus has to move.

“Swim in, swim in!”

Claus swims closer to Jason, leaving Mikko behind. For the rest of the day, Claus and Craig will race back and forth across 150 m of boulders, hauling children in stretchers that in this cave, in this dark, they sometimes drop.

* * *

At first, Ivan and Erik don’t see anything at Station 6. They certainly can’t see Jim behind them, who’s also looking for signs of life in the dark a third of a kilometre away. When Erik and Ivan see something, they’re not sure what it is. Ivan makes out a figure in the water. The body of a child is being dragged along by Jason. Ivan doesn’t know whether the child is dead or alive. If he had to guess, he might say it was dead. He knows to look for air bubbles. For the next couple of hours, that is their first job: spot air bubbles. And, finally, there they are, that very first time: the child is breathing.

Now the real work begins. One man scrambles up the steep embankment to grab replacement tanks, the other gives the diver a break by swimming the child along. The men send the bubbles on their way.

* * *

Jim waits. He spends his first minutes at Station 5 with his station-mate, Connor, listening to cave walls echo with the sounds of air bubbles from far away. The bubbles trickle through caverns, surfacing in places more distant than they sound. Maybe some of them surface only in Jim’s mind. Again, again and again, he thinks a child is appearing, but the water is still.

Until suddenly it’s not. There! Air bubbles! Real ones this time. The bubbles are coming from one person swimming, and another, smaller, motionless body being dragged through the water by the first. Jason surfaces. Jim jumps up. What does he need? Jim will give him anything he needs.

“All okay?” Jim calls out.

“All okay.”

Okay then. Jason doesn’t need help or air. Jim does nothing.

For 45 minutes, Jim sits and waits and does more of nothing, listening to the sound of bubbles that aren’t there. Then John surfaces. Bubbles are coming from his boy. John says Jim can help him push the boy along, but John has enough energy to carry on a conversation as well as carry the boy. “You’re being so good, you’re doing brilliant,” John is saying. He is talking to the unconscious boy. Is John going crazy? Caves make people crazy; cave divers are crazy. Later, Jim will learn the doctor told the lead divers that, like a person in a coma, the sedated kids might be able to sense what’s happening around them. It’s dark in the cave; John is trying to give this sleeping child a nightlight.

When Chris surfaces, Jim thinks he can make himself more useful. Chris signals he could use a hand pulling the kid through the water. Jim comes up on the other side of the boy and grasps the strap on the back of the boy’s buoyancy jacket, holding it behind Chris’s hand. No time for soft words: Chris swims like he and the boy are being chased by a school of sharks—like it’s time, not water, that might sink them. Jim can barely hold on as Chris hauls the child through the dark and Jim along with them. Dr. Harry has warned the divers they need to get the boys out of the water before hypothermia sets in, and Chris is giving it all he’s got. Jim isn’t fast enough, isn’t strong enough. If he’s helping, what might hindering be like?

Rick is the last man through: bubbles come from his boy, too, travelling the entire length of the bank. By this time, Jim can’t believe what he’s witnessing. Everyone is through.

Jim and Connor hang around, bringing up the rear as the rest of the support divers pass through, taking an inventory of all the equipment. They find a mountain of tanks right around where Saman died. Jim passes Ivan, who assumes he’s there for moral support. But when Dr. Harry emerges, it’s Jim he turns to.

The last boy out had a lung infection. Dr. Harry had dived closely behind Rick through the 350 m to Pattaya Beach, staying near the sick boy, and needed to spoon with him on the beach while keeping his airway open. Claus, who speaks to his own daughters in Thai, had done the same for the boy: “Sleep. When you wake up, you’ll see your parents again,” he’d told the child. “Breathe.” The boy calmed down, and the men placed him back in Rick’s hands. Dr. Harry needs to know: how were all the children when Jim saw them last?

Jim can give him that, at least. “Still breathing,” he says.

* * *

In the space of a few hours, a handful of scuba bums and cave nuts have become a band of world-famous heroes. As they make their way from Grand Central Station 3 to the changing area, they’re mobbed with high-fives, hugs, selfies and cheers from hundreds of volunteers.

The Brits return to their hotel and the Europeans-plus-one-Canadian to theirs. Separately, each team talks about the rescue movies already in production. The Brits say Jason will be played by Jason Statham, which is flattering; John by Rowan Atkinson, which is less flattering. Vancouver’s Erik, who has been photographed with his long, sun-bleached hair dripping with cave water and his strong jaw set in a hard line, is renamed Thor by the women of Thailand and the internet. He doesn’t like it. He says the script will refer to him as Support Diver Number Four and that’s just fine with him.

As Thailand offers thanks to Buddha, the dive teams debrief over beers. They will do it all over again tomorrow. The country has its religion; the foreign divers have theirs. What had never been done and could not possibly be done, had been done. Praise be to the plan. The plan had saved them. The plan must be honoured. Nothing must change.

This undated still from a video released on July 11, 2018, shows rescuers holding a boy inside the cave. Sakchai Lalit/Thai Navy SEAL/Facebook/AP/CP

DAY TWO OF THE RESCUE

The next day, everything changes. Ivan can barely breathe. He has a lung infection. The doctor at the cave’s medic station puts him on an IV drip and tells him to lie down. He shuts his eyes. When he wakes, he finds he’s missed the rescue. The doctor tells him he can’t go back in. Ivan will go home. The mission has lost another diver; Ivan has lost his chance to finish something no one has ever started before.

Meanwhile, one of the world’s greatest living divers is sitting alone in a chair outside the cave. Ben is still waiting. Elfin Jim comes across him. He has followed the great Ben’s career for a long time and, finally, here they are, face to face. Jim likes to think they might have a bit of a bond; he even has a joke prepared to that effect. “You’re not the only Belgian here, you know!” Jim imagines saying to Ben in a tough-guy voice, and he imagines them laughing and laughing, the two Belgians, together at last. But Ben does not seem to be in a laughing mood. Jim recalls hearing that Ben was banned from the cave. Jim says a quiet hello and moves on.

No time for jokes anyway: Jim is being moved up to Station 6 as Ivan’s replacement. Ben remains in his chair. No one says it, but in a sense, Jim is Ben’s replacement, too. Ben will leave later that day, never to return.

More news: Dr. Harry tells Jim that not only will the kids be drugged, but Jim himself might have to drug them. When they awaken, their eyelids fluttering or fingers trembling, he will have to pull out a syringe.

There’s no water bottle to practise on today. Dr. Harry pantomimes an injection, tells Jim about not needing to find a vein and needing to not hit bone. There. He has just invited Jim to join the ranks of unlicensed doctors administering drugs to children in the dark. While Dr. Harry divvies up the rest of the sedatives among the divers, Jim finds a little pouch for his drugs and tucks it into his wetsuit.

He’s been assigned to Station 6 with Erik, the long-haired, serious-faced surfing retiree. Together, they head into the cave, they dive the 600 m from Grand Central Station 3 to Station 6, they sit down on the bank, they wait for the lead divers to start coming through one by one with a boy, and they talk exploring. They’re happy to have a station-mate from the other team. “Claus’s Men,” Erik’s team is sometimes called; the Canadian doesn’t like that much more than “Team Europe.” A diver is his own man. Erik is the kind of guy who, when he watches tourists snorkelling in Koh Tao, asks, “Why bother?” He’s watched Rick use car tubing strapped to his back as a buoyancy compensator, and he’s watched Jason unscrew his regulator, dump out a pile of mud and put it back in his mouth. The Brits forage for whatever equipment they can’t afford and make whatever parts they can’t find. These men dive with their boots on. These are the men Erik respects. Jim, though, sometimes misses the scrappy entrepreneurial side of diving.

Jim knows this happens sometimes, seeing people for who they really are in the dark: you don’t know them, but you know a part of them that most people don’t. When you’re underground, you see the hidden side of each other’s lives, the parts people black out. When Jim says, “The biggest satisfaction is to go to a place where no human eyes have seen what you’ve seen,” he could just as well be talking about discovering the truth about a person. Jason appears at their station first. He needs a new tank, and Jim watches Erik help. John’s next. John’s boy’s arms are moving. He’ll need an injection to put him back under. There’s a ledge with a space blanket in this chamber, so they take the child out of the water and wrap him up in it. Jim helps Erik flip the boy over so Erik can administer the injection. Erik is calm. Jim wonders if he’s ever had to sedate children before. Erik hasn’t: Weeks later, when Erik recalls giving drugs to the little boys, he cries. He doesn’t cry today. Jim tries to learn from him. He’ll have to learn fast.

Chris comes through. His rescue isn’t going well. His boy keeps waking up. Erik takes the boy up to the bank to inject him.

Waiting for the drugs to kick in, Chris turns to Jim. “Will you swim me out?” he asks. He wants Jim with him all the way to Grand Central Station 3. Sure, says Jim. Jim is far from sure. He can barely keep up with Chris, who dragged him through the water along with the boy last time.

Jim soon gets used to Chris pushing hard. When they dive, Jim gives Chris his space: he has to keep a loose grip on the line and allow a lot of slack, or else it might spring away from Chris and Chris might lose it. They surface near Connor, Jim’s station-mate from the day before, and are helped through to Station 5; there, they squeeze the boy’s hand. It’s still. He’s not dead, though. Good.

Chris swims forward; Jim swims behind. When they meet in the air chamber of the unmanned Station 4, though, Chris says the boy’s hands are moving, tied behind his back, though it’s difficult to see them clench as they bob around in the water. One of them will have to inject the boy; neither has injected a boy alone before. May as well be Jim. Chris hands him the drugs.

As Chris holds the boy, Jim lifts the child’s leg as high as he can above the surface of the water. It’s harder to puncture the wetsuit than he thought it would be. It takes force to jam the needle through the fabric, then through the skin, then into the muscle. Jim pushes as hard as he can; he’s afraid the needle will break. Finally he’s pushed for so long he’s sure it must be deep enough.

There. But still the boy won’t settle. They watch him helplessly as his hands flail. “Maybe if we turn him to his other side it will help with the blood flow or something,” Jim suggests.

“He’s not a drink you’re mixing!” Chris says.

But Chris doesn’t have a better plan. They roll the kid over. The hands stop clenching. It’s not because of anything they did, but they don’t care. It stops. It stops! Chris dives back in. Jim follows, all the way to Grand Central. He climbs out of the water after Chris, but Jim stays a while. He wants to hear it: Whenever one of the Chinese divers feels the line move, he knows one of the boys is on it and shouts, “Fish on!” “Fish on!” Jim hears it.

And there is Rick with his boy. And there is the medical team. And there is the sked, and there are his vital signs, and there they all go. Within seconds, the boy is scuttled through the rest of the cave.

* * *

Jason pulls Jim aside in the changing room outside the cave. There will be five people to save tomorrow, not four. They’ll need five lead divers. How would Jim feel about being one of them?

Two days ago, Jim wasn’t even a support diver; one day before that, he was the last support diver in a long line of them. So Jim doesn’t feel at all sure about being a lead. “How do the others feel?” he asks.

The British leads, Rick and John, don’t feel sure either. Jim is inexperienced. They’re thinking maybe Craig, maybe Dr. Harry. Jason, though, thinks it would be better for Jim to try. When Jim couldn’t bring his friend’s body out on his own, he’d said so. Jim knows his limits.

Jason puts Jim’s name to the rest of the group; no one says no, but no one says yes. He puts Jim’s name on the line again. Still no no’s; still no yeses. He says Jim’s name again. And eventually, no no’s is enough. The next day, Jason will help Jim by diving the first boy out from the bank the kids are stuck on, but he’ll only take the kid as far as Pattaya Beach, the first stop; the rest of that boy’s journey will be up to Jim.

Jim barely sleeps. He doesn’t think he can do the impossible. He’s a mere mortal among gods, here.

But it’s said that a god lives inside every man. Many men seek him out. Tomorrow, forced to plunge deep into the abyss, deeper than he thought possible, deeper than anyone could have planned for, Jim will have to find him.

A map of the cave complex

DAY THREE OF THE RESCUE

Outside the cave it’s raining. “We’ve hit eight home runs but that doesn’t mean we can be complacent,” an American commander says at the last team meeting before the final rescue attempt. Jim had always imagined that Americans are all high-fives this and “We have to save the girl!” that. These Americans are cool, careful logicians.

Jim heads into the cave with Claus and Craig, and all the while he stays cool, too. He dives past the low ceiling where Ben got stuck and had to retreat; past where Ivan lost his dive buddy and had to retreat; past the wires where the German got caught and had to retreat; past the place where Saman had died. As Jim dives into a cave that has stranded, injured and killed other men, the echoes of their departures do not reach him. He hears only the sound of his own breathing amplified through the regulator as he follows the line straight to hell.

An hour or two later, as Jim waits on a beach near Station 7, all calm dissolves. Jim hears Jason speak. His voice is hard.

“Jim, you’re up.” Jim gets up.

“Jim, get your gear on.” Jim gets his gear on.

His fins pulled over his cheap farmer’s wellies, Jim dives into the black once more. Later, he’ll remember little of those first few moments in the water as he waits for the boy to be placed in his arms, but he will recall thinking this: “My fate is coming toward me.”

Claus will remember more. He’ll do a decent impression of Jim the moment before he set off.

“Okay. Cave now I go to. I swim now.”

And with that, Jim starts to swim.

* * *

As divers were heaving bodies through the cave, I was hitching rides on the backs of volunteers’ motorbikes. Work was Thailand’s vigil. People waited on a miracle by shuttling foreign journalists around, picking up garbage and serving food. They laughed when I asked for interviews, laughed harder when I asked their names. Some would talk a little and run away when another task called; one didn’t stop scrubbing the floor around the toilet she cleaned. Locals were big enough to do small work with a focus that exposed the rest of us, their guests, as lost and petty stragglers.

One took me to another vigil site, the temple where the boys used to go with their coach, the monk. Outside the entrance of this temple’s cave, a woman selling beaded bracelets had run through most of her inventory of prayers, but children still offered flaming candles to Buddha in exchange for the lives of other children stuck inside another cave. They were too calm. Thailand gave collective tribute to a plan it did not need to fully grasp to accept. But didn’t they understand that four boys and a monk still weren’t safe? Didn’t they know you can’t follow eight straight home runs with five more? Didn’t they realize people still had to die?

Another stick of incense was lit; the smoke rose above the saffron-robed monks bowing their heads, above the temple’s pagodas towering over the village, above the treetops canopying the Lady of the Cave, into the sky blanketing a world that wondered if grace could penetrate three kilometres of solid rock.

* * *

The world is gone. Over Jim, even with the deadweight of a sedated body tucked under his arm, that old weightlessness quickly descends. One breath after the other, one grip after the other. That’s all. Hand, hand, hand; breath, breath, breath. Eventually, Jim’s hands carry him to Station 6, where his new friend Erik is waiting for him.

Erik mans his station alone that day. When it’s all over, divers will talk amongst themselves about how he went back and forth as fast as they needed, getting whatever they needed. What they don’t know is that when Erik scrambled over some boulders earlier on his way into the cave, his bad shoulder slipped out. They don’t know because he never says. But onward for him. Onward for Jim and his boy.

Hand, hand, hand. “Do you need a hand?” he hears. Jim hadn’t realized he’d travelled within shouting distance of Station 5, his station from the first rescue day. His head has surfaced and Connor, with whom he had been stationed that day and who still mans it, is calling to him from across the dark water.

“I’m fine!” Jim calls back.

Just then, Jim feels something move beneath his arm. He looks down. The boy is doubling over in the water as though he’s been punched in the stomach. This isn’t a normal wake-up. No fluttering eyelids, no trembling fingertips. Full body spasms. Jim looks back up and calls out again.

“I’m not fine! I am not fine!”

It takes a few minutes for Connor to swim to them. The boy’s hands are clenching and unclenching, still bound. And there it is: one of his fists is strangling Jim’s air tube. Jim’s head is above the water for now, but he could be pulled under.

Connor splashes over. Together, the men try to pry the hand off Jim’s tube. Every time they straighten one finger, the one they just unfurled curls back around. This boy is strong. Both men use everything they’ve got to pry the hand off the tube, one man holding the unclenched fingers open, the other straightening the remaining digits, the boy’s rings digging into their skin.

There, finally. Jim is free. As fast as they can, they inject the boy. They wait. The boy calms. Jim swims on.

Hand, hand, hand. Suddenly, Jim’s hand grips the line tighter. A reflex. His centre of gravity has shifted and he’s been pulled off balance. He thinks it’s happening again—the boy’s spasms. It’s worse. Again, the boy is writhing like a salted snail; this time, no one is there to help.

Jim will have to help the boy himself. There’s a bit of a bank up ahead: the unmanned Station 4. He hauls the boy up onto the mud a little bit. He pulls the plastic safety cap off the syringe with his teeth. He stabs the needle into the boy. He waits for the boy to calm down. The boy calms down. He waits to be absolutely sure the boy has calmed down. The boy has absolutely calmed down. Jim sticks the needle in a crack of the cave wall so it doesn’t pierce the next divers, and he swims on to Grand Central Station 3, the final station on Jim’s journey.

Hand. Hand. Hand. Again. Again. Again.

Impossible, but there it is: the body doubling over. Again, Jim thinks it’s happening again. Again, it’s worse. This time, they’re far from a bank. And this time, the boy has nearly knocked his own air tank clear off—Jim can feel the cylinder just barely hanging on by the top rubber bind, flapping around in the water.

If explorers only thought about the destination they’re trying to reach, they would never see it. In a cave, short-sighted tunnel vision can be a lifesaver. Jim knows to home in on the critical elements of dangerous situations: Ignore your quickening heartbeat, concentrate on your breathing; forget what happens to you if your air runs out, focus on what you can do with the air that remains; disregard the fact that a hand might resume strangling your air tube at any moment, remember that you’re not quite dead yet. Jim sees that if he lets go of the line to reattach the boy’s cylinder they might get lost and run out of air; if he injects the boy again and waits for the drugs to kick in there might be a diver jam. He also sees that if he doesn’t salvage the boy’s air cylinder, there’s a chance the boy could die, and if he doesn’t inject the boy again, the boy could kill them both.

So tonight, as a child spasms beneath his arm once more, Jim’s mind discards all mental debris, drawing on 20 years of experience in diving, caving and factory work to distill the available resources, risks and objectives into a clear assessment of the situation: “Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.”

Better to try, though. Jim gives himself the order.

“Go.”

He keeps the boy’s head close to his body to prevent his charge’s skull from cracking open on the ceiling or his mask from banging around the walls. But the thing to do is move. Hand, hand, hand. That is all there is. There is his hand on the line. There is his hand again. There is his hand again. Somewhere around his hand, he is aware, there is water, and in the water there is danger, and in the water that is full of danger is the boy his other hand clutches by just a handle. But even as the child beneath him spasms and the air tank swings, there is only one hand on a rope and another on a body.

Hand. Hand. Hand. He can’t think what will be waiting for them when his hand brings him to the end of the line, because he can’t think about the end of the line, only of his hand on a line. But when he sees what’s ahead, he sees what has been there all along: a hand. Fingertips of light tap the surface of the black water. Then more hands. Hands appearing through the bright lights filtering in from above, hands stretching closer to Jim, hands taking and cradling the boy, hands passing the boy up the bank to other hands.

Jim hears the words somewhere far beyond him: “He’s breathing.” A flurry of figures are running away, the boy is with them, Jim is alone, and he is wondering if the tears he’s been fighting will finally fall.

Those come later. Someone tells him what he might have known had he considered the rings on the fingers that clutched his air tube, and the drugs that seemed not to work as well as usual: Jim hasn’t been rescuing one of the boys. Jim—last-minute fill-in, Support Diver Number Six, mere mortal among gods—has rescued the boys’ coach, the monk who had done the impossible, too: kept 12 children alive in a flooded cave until other men could save them.

Breathe, breathe, breathe, the monk had commanded 12 boys in meditation for 17 days. At last, Jim does.

Onlookers watch and cheer as ambulances deliver rescued boys to a hospital in Chiang Rai on July 8, 2018. Lauren DeCicca/Getty Images

The end of the mission does not go to plan. Just before Grand Central Station 3, Chris, who never loses his nerve, never loses himself to fear, loses the line. It was there; it is gone. Hand, hand, hand. Water, water, water. He is lost. If Chris panics, it’s curtains. For minutes: nothing.

Nothing.

Until at last—there—something. But this line is not the line. It’s an electrical cable. He follows it with the boy through a passageway that doubles them back to the unmanned Station 4. He remembers Dr. Harry will be the last foreign diver out; the doctor wasn’t leaving the cave until his patients had left, too. Chris, the man who can do anything, knows it’s time to ask another man to do it for him. He sits. He waits. Eventually, Dr. Harry comes along, finds Chris on the bank, picks up the boy and delivers one last child to safety.

The mission has not gone strictly to plan but the plan has succeeded: hand by hand, boy by boy, until all are safe.

Some divers leave fast, because what can top the impossible. Others want to hang around the site of a miracle. The Americans have a bottle of Johnnie Walker and buckets of KFC at the ready, and more selfies, more hugs, more cheers. No one tells anyone to put the vodka down.

Then: the sound of a bang and people screaming.

That day, around when Jim learned the identity of the person he rescued, I learned the identity of the person with whom I had flown to the cave: there, behind a blond beard in a ubiquitous newspaper photo I had never looked at hard enough, was the man I described as a nice guy from the airplane, the same man divers called the rescue operation’s lynchpin: Dr. Harry. He would be one of the last divers to get the news that all 13 of his patients had survived. He would also discover that someone else had not.

Something may have felt like death there landing in Chiang Rai, but as for when it’s time, and whose time it is, you never know. The men met the limits of men who came before them and they went further down the line and they can put their names on the piece of line that is their own. But no man is a god and no plan is sacred: a new impossible always surfaces and there is never a good way to leave. As Dr. Harry finished saving the sons of other men, his own father died.

You can search but you can’t always find. While you watch out for falling rocks, the floodwaters will rise.

The sound of a bang and people screaming: a pipe has burst; the main pump stops working; Grand Central Station 3 is filling with water. After saving a dozen people, dozens more might be killed in the tsunami sending rescuers running for their lives. No one will ever know how that main pump stopped. Some believe it was mistakenly turned off. Others think it broke. Claus has a feeling the Lady of the Cave let them finish the job, then ordered them gone. On his way out, he thanks her at her shrine once more.

“Now get the bloody hell out of here,” Claus hears her reply.

* * *

“Well, well, well. What are you doing here?”

“Here” was another airport: Vancouver’s. Months had passed since Dr. Harry and I had taken off from the one in Bangkok. In Chiang Rai, where we had landed, all the faces of the divers were now plastered on a mural, the region’s hottest selfie destination. Dr. Harry, suddenly recognizable on any plane in the world, wasn’t saying much except to say he hadn’t done all that much. Claus had been looking into setting up a rescue training program with Ben; Ben had kept the monk’s beaded bracelet tied around his wrist. Ivan had been helping raise money for an ambulance in Koh Tao. Chris had gone back to planning caving expeditions. Jim had gone back to the factory. And Jim’s new friend Erik had been thinking about establishing a sports charity for underprivileged kids in Canada. When I turned around at the Vancouver departures terminal, it was Erik standing behind me.

“What are you doing here?” I countered. Erik had come back to Canada to pick up an award for heroism; he scowled when he said the word. He took one look at my high heels, sighed and grabbed my suitcase as we walked through the airport, pointing out his more sensible work uniform of rubber flip-flops. I thought of Harry.

I’d been struggling to lift my suitcase out of the overhead compartment the afternoon we landed in Chiang Rai. Harry reached a hand in front of me and took the bag down. “You’ve come all the way from Canada,” he said. “You could do it yourself otherwise.”

I couldn’t. Harry knew it, too.

“What is it with you guys?” I asked Erik. “Why won’t you just admit you’re helping someone?”

He shrugged. “We all need people. Not much help to anyone though if you make them feel like they can’t help themselves.” I only wanted him to acknowledge what he was, but what is heroism without humility?

We reached his gate. He handed me my suitcase. “You take care of yourself.” He winked and was gone.

The Thai soccer team and their assistant coach are pictured 43 days after their miraculous cave rescue. Pannawat Muangmoon/ABC/Getty Images