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Mikko Paasi

Risking death to save the Thai cave boys

Finnish diver Mikko Paasi in Thailand, 2018. Pongmanat Tasiri/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

In June 2018, 12 boys and their 25-year-old football coach went missing deep inside a flooded cave system in Thailand. Finding them alive after nine days was “almost a miracle”, Finnish cave diver Mikko Paasi tells Die Zeit. The problem was, how to get them out? One idea was to send in supplies so the boys could “sit out” the rainy season. Then a decision was made: we would bring them out by sedating them and tying them up “like packages” in ill-fitting dive gear. They would be pulled through a mile-long series of pitch-black tunnels and chambers, all flooded with freezing water, choked with mud and, in places, just 18in wide. “It sounded like a suicide mission.” But the boys, who had pitifully tried to dig an escape tunnel, consented.

A team of four British divers led the mission, with Paasi and others assisting. At one point – where a Thai rescue diver had died just days before – Paasi couldn’t squeeze a boy he was carrying through a narrow bottleneck. They were 50 yards from safety. Was the boy’s oxygen running out? “I got scared.” He retreated and, with help from another diver, managed to get through. The perilous rescue of each boy took up to three hours, but the audacious plan came off. Paasi doesn’t blame the boys’ coach for their predicament. He was “so calm and level-headed”, and people were allowed in the caves at that time of year. The 46-year-old diver says the rescuers made many mistakes – but “you should still try tackling things, even if they seem hopeless”.