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INSIDE STORY of the Thai cave rescue and the critical decision taken when an ill-fitting face mask put the last boy in peril

Divers who took part in the rescue mission recall how difficult it was to rescue the last two boys on the last day of the mission
UPDATED MAR 23, 2020
(Source:Getty Images)
(Source:Getty Images)

Earlier this month, the world witnessed the brave and perilous mission to rescue 12 young players of a football team and their coach who were trapped in a mountain cave in Thailand. With water flooding the cave and more rains predicted, it was a battle against time for rescuers to get them to safety, a three day effort that kept many on tenterhooks.

Now rescue divers have spoken about the dangers they faced while rescuing the last boys on the third day, and the make or break decision they had to take after they found that the breathing mask wouldn't fit one of the boys, a matter of life and death in those circumstances.

Conditions inside the Tham Luang cave had deteriorated and divers could barely see their hands in front of their face even as British rescue diver Jason Mallinson reached the last stranded boy to accompany him through treacherous and murky flooded tunnels to safety.

However, on reaching the ledge where the team had been stranded and from where the others had been rescued over the course of the last three days, Mallinson discovered that the face mask he had brought for the boy was too big for him, and wouldn't seal properly.

“It didn’t fit him,” he told ABC 20/20. “We put it on him, really strapped down tight so his nose was flattened against his face and there was a big gap under his chin. We just couldn’t get it to seal.”

It was imperative that the mask sealed properly as they had to navigate flooded tunnels, with the boy sedated for the trip.

With time running out, Mallinson feared the boy would drown and there was no way to contact rescuers outside the cave to bring in a new mask. 

Australian diver and anesthesiologist Richard Harris had already dosed the boy with ketamine to keep him calm and still during the perilous dive.

The duo tried a different mask which they hoped would seal properly and stop the rescue from becoming a disaster at the last hurdle.

“It was so nervous for me because it was the different type of mask with this seal that you could dislodge sideway. I had to be so careful with him,” he said.

"We knew we didn't have any more time and we knew this was the last option," Mallinson said.

"Once you set off with that kid, it was a one-way journey. You weren't going back to where they started… It was a case of getting him out. A bit brutal but dead or alive."  

Mallinson expressed that he was nervous guiding the boy through the tunnels because the replacement mask could easily come off sideways if the boy bumped hid head against something, a distinct possibility given that some of the tunnels were very narrow.

Visibility in the tunnels was the bare minimum and the rescuers couldn't see the boy as they pulled him along, so Mallison used his own body as a shield.

"I developed a technique where I'd pull him in really tight with his head just down here," he said, demonstrating. "And, I'd extend my head over the top of his so my head hit the wall first and it so protected his head," Mallinson said, adding that he hit his head dozens of times on the cave wall but had to keep up the pace so the child didn't develop hypothermia.

At the same time, fellow British diver Chris Jewell was facing challenges of his own while guiding the second last boy through the caves. The boys had held out in chamber 9 and needed to reach chamber 3 where other rescuers would help them over the caverns that weren't flooded. The divers used a three-inch-thick guide rope they pulled themselves along against the current with one arm while dragging the boys with the other. But by chamber 4, Jewell lost his grip on the rope and got completely lost in the darkness and was unable to feel the rope.

He then found an electrical cable which he hoped would lead him forward, but instead, sent him back towards the end of the cave. He realized he wasn't going the right way, so he decided to surface and get his bearings, putting the boy on a rock outcrop.

"I surfaced in a different section of the cave and I really didn't know where I was for several minutes,' Jewell told 20/20.

Eventually, Mallison and Dr Harris caught up with him and the doctor was able to take over while Jewell followed behind.

"I followed him closely behind just making sure that he didn't have any problems in the way," he said. At last they all reached the mouth of the cave and the rescue was over with every boy safely recovered.

Despite risking their lives multiple times to save complete strangers, the pair said they don't feel like heroes, just people with skills that could help in the situation.

"I don't feel like a hero. I just feel like someone who was in the right place at the right time with the right skills to make a difference," Jewell said.