When news first broke on Thursday that a diver working to rescue the trapped children in Thailand died, appended was a notable detail: His nationality was unknown.
Since the 12 boys and their soccer coach went missing two weeks ago, 140 cave divers from around the world have come together. Six nations have sent expert teams, including the United States —30 people, among them 17 Air Force search-and-rescue specialists — Australia and Britain.
It was British cave divers John Volanthen and Rick Stanton, themselves nearly overwhelmed by the perilous conditions, who first found the boys and their coach. Volanthen and Stanton had swum as far as they could, 7 miles through darkness, around boulders and through passageways just 2 feet wide, placing guide lines until they ran out and were forced to the surface.
There, against all odds, Volathen and Stanton first saw them, weak but alive.
“When we first discussed this mission, we said right away, ‘This mission is impossible,’ ” Chiang Rai Province’s governor said. “But the SEALs were very confident in their ability, and they told us they would bring the boys out.”
This story has united Thailand, its population otherwise riven by socioeconomic and cultural distrust between the poor and elites. (Sound familiar?) The king has sent food and practical support to the rescuers. The boys now have food, medicine and hope.
It is no small thing to see, in our unthinkable moment of children ripped from their parents — border crises not just here but throughout the EU — brave and decent people from around the globe risking their own lives to save children they do not know.
One Belgian cave diver said the conditions — utter darkness, currents to rival the Colorado River — were almost impossible even for him. There are long passages with no air pockets.
“You’re literally pulling yourself, hand over hand, in zero visibility,” Ben Reymenants told The New York Times. “You can’t read your depth gauge, you can’t read the time, so you’re basically flying blind in a direction you don’t know.”
Reymenants offered to go back in a second time.
None of the children knows how to swim. None of them is comfortable holding their breath, let alone swimming in darkness with face masks and air tanks. Even these expert cave divers need to mitigate their own risk of panic. To panic is to die.
They are racing against monsoon season and waning oxygen levels. These divers will not give up.
“Normally, I’d just turn around,” Reymenants told the Times. “But then normally I don’t have 12 boys, and their entire lives, as an endpoint. A Navy SEAL can’t just sit there while these kids die in the cave. They have to show some activity — and if you’re a Navy SEAL, yes, you’ll sacrifice yourself.”
Today, we know that the diver who died, 38-year-old Samam Gunan, was a retired Thai Navy SEAL. In these deeply fractured times, the best of us battered and whipsawed by a depressing, endless news cycle of shame, blame and outrage, it’s difficult to recall a time when someone’s nationality mattered less.
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