So many things could have gone wrong as an international team of divers, experts and military personnel worked together at Tham Luang cave system in Mae Rai, Thailand, this summer to try and save 12 members of the local Wild Boars soccer team and their coach.
The group — the boys ages 11 to 16; the coach, 24 — had become unexpectedly trapped by rising flood waters during a brief post-practice trip on June 23. They had no food and limited oxygen in the living-sized chamber where they were holed up, about one-and-a-half miles from the cave’s entrance.
No one outside initially knew if they were alive or even if they could be reached, let alone if they could survive the return journey through treacherous, water-logged passages.
“The odds were so stacked against these people,” says Matt Gutman, ABC News’ chief national correspondent, who arrived on the scene on July 4 and who spent the next two months reporting on what he saw. The seemingly impossible mission had an amazing twist: it was a success.
“It was so much more complex and so much more heroic and so much more miraculous than anybody thought possible,” Gutman, 40, says.
His book on the rescue, The Boys in the Cave, will be released on Tuesday and is exclusively excerpted in this week’s issue of PEOPLE. Gutman gives an inside view of the boys’ survival and of the daunting obstacles faced by those who brought them home.
But how did they do it?
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Ten days after the team was trapped, it was confirmed that they were still alive deep in the cave. The news sent a jolt of energy and renewed focus through rescuers (and relieved the boys’ anxious parents).
But the news also emphasized a problem the officials were facing. The Thai government had promised to pursue only risk-free options, according to Gutman. This included possibly leaving the team inside Tham Luang for three or four more months until the monsoon season ended and the water abated. The challenges of the cave system made the idea of continually ferrying air and food to the boys and their coach seem more and more like fantasy.
Instead they would have to be essentially carried out by the divers — and, at the insistence of the rescues, they would have to be sedated. Even so, many involved believed a majority of the team would not survive leaving the cave.
“Swimming them through without sedation would have been terrifying for the boys and possibly dangerous for the divers,” Gutman writes, “so the only option to mitigate possible trauma and enable the divers to do their job was knocking them out.”
As diver Jason Mallinson explained to ABC: “I can’t have him [one of the boys] twitching around. He could have harmed himself. He could have ripped his face mask off and then he was dead. It was much better for me to sedate him and keep him under, in my opinion.”
The unprecedented plan was put into action with the key aid of Australian Dr. Richard Harris, whom Gutman describes as a “unicorn” for his fortuitous overlapping skills as an anesthesiologist and cave diver. Harris has also been involved in previous rescues.
It was Harris who first sedated the boys, but it was the individual divers who had to keep them unconscious during the trek out of the cave. They did so by re-administering doses of the tranquilizer ketamine along the way, according to Gutman. (In addition to their other gear and the bodies they were carrying, the divers were equipped with needles and syringes.)
“This had never been done before by any of them,” Gutman tells PEOPLE. “These guys didn’t necessarily think they would die, they figured that they were the best in the world at cave diving. … The question is: What do you do if one of your boys is drowning? And this is the question that plagued all of them.”
As the rescue operation dawned, each boy was given Xanax and then dosed with ketamine and atropine, a drug to dry up their lungs and mouth to prevent choking. They donned wetsuits and specialized full-face masks.
They were told that the pill would make them feel a bit strange. But when they woke up, they would be free.
The boys’ parents were informed of the rescue but told to keep it secret, Gutman writes. What they didn’t know was that their children were being sedated for the mission.
Weeks later, when Gutman returned to the area in late August, the parents were still unaware of that part of the rescue. “It was a complete secret,” he says.
Despite the many risks, the rescue worked. Not a single member of the team or their coach perished or even suffered lasting physical damage, according to observers.
Vernon Unsworth, a 63-year-old cave expert from the U.K., assisted the rescue and briefed the divers. He says: “Possibly some people are thinking, ‘I don’t believe this happened.’ But it did.”