LOS ANGELES ASIAN PACIFIC FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! The Rescue, from Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, the directors of Free Solo, tells the story of the rescue of 12 Thai boys and their coach from a flooded cave system. Cave diving is fraught with danger at the best of times. Everyone who does it is an amateur because it isn’t a profession. Some have made gear because it is so specialized, and there are so few people doing it that it isn’t sold commercially. They often use rebreathers, which are inherently complex and prone to failure resulting in death. Muddy conditions mean visibility is frequently zero. And if you get disoriented or lose hold of a rope, you can fail to find your way out and die.
In 2018, a Thai soccer team out for a hike in a cave got trapped by rising floodwaters. People knew they were missing, but there was no guarantee they’d be found alive. The Thai Navy SEAL team was called and started searching, but they had no experience with cave diving. Fortunately, one of the top cave divers in the world, Rick Stanton, was dating a Thai woman from the same village as the kids. He and his dive partner, John Volanthen, another of the world’s best, made their way to Thailand from the UK and started a desperate search for the kids.
Given that a week had gone by since the boys had gone missing and the continued treacherous conditions, Stanton and Volanthen thought there was no chance of finding them. They tried to make arrangements to depart, but on July 2, the weather cleared enough to resume diving. Stanton and Volanthen pressed on for hours, exploring the cave and laying guide rope. They were initially distraught when they couldn’t find the team at the most likely location, nicknamed Pattaya Beach. But they pressed on, pushing their air reserves into their safety margin, and ultimately found everyone. But as The Rescue shows, that was just the beginning.
“…the story of the rescue of 12 Thai boys and their coach from a flooded cave system.”
The divers had previously rescued four workers near the cave entrance who had fallen asleep and been trapped by rising water. As they ferried the men back and forth on a short dive, all of them panicked and tried to swim to the surface, pulling off their masks any time they saw an air space. Based on that experience, they thought it was almost surely impossible to dive out a dozen children over a treacherous several-hour journey.
The top dozen or so cave divers in the world were called in to help, and in all-around 100 divers aided in the rescue effort. Unfortunately, in the process, retired Thai SEAL Saman Kunan ran out of air and died. His widow tells some of his story in The Rescue, and I was glad to see the filmmakers pulled no punches in explaining his death. Many options were explored, including leaving the kids in the cave for months until after the rainy season, drilling a shaft down to the cave, and teaching the kids basic diving skills.
Ultimately, the dropping oxygen levels in the cave, impending additional rains, and the weakened condition of the boys forced the last-bad option – sedating the boys, putting them in wetsuits and full-face positive pressure masks, and diving them out while unconscious. Anesthetist and cave diver Richard Harris initially thought that there were too many risks, as there were so many ways for it to go wrong. It’d be hard to keep their airways open, the boys could choke on their saliva, their masks could be dislodged. Ultimately he was convinced there was no other option and went along with it.
"…access to dozens of hours of video, though in some cases when none existed, they recreated scenes..."