The Human Element: Heroes of the Thai Cave Rescue

The improbability of the Thai Cave rescue can be easily dismissed but it may be instructive to examine how the assemblage of 10,000 people from 100 governmental agencies pulled off the improbable.[1] Yes, luck played a role but needed assistance from innovative thinking and makeshift tools to account for the limitations imposed by a range of uncertainties.

“Risk frameworks fail in extremis”

“It took plastic cocoons, floating stretchers and a rope line that hoisted the players and coach over outcroppings. “The most important piece of the rescue was good luck,” said Maj. Gen. Chalongchai Chaiyakham, the deputy commander of the Third Army region, which helped the operation. “So many things could have gone wrong, but somehow we managed to get the boys out.”

June 23, the Wild Boar soccer team visited the Tham Luang caves like they have on other occasions to celebrate the birthday of a teammate. Ignoring the warnings and the forecast of rain at the beginning of the monsoon season the boys ventured into the caves in their soccer cleats with water, snacks and flashlights. The last of the survivals did not exit the caves until July 10th.

The fateful decision to go into the caves started one of the most incredible rescues in history. Cave diving in cramped, murky conditions is extreme diving for the most experienced. The Tham Luang Cave conditions were made worse by inaccurate and incomplete mapping of many of the caverns. Finding the boys was like looking for 13 needles in a haystack without the aid of light!

“Heroes emerged from all corners of the world!”

Thai Navy Seals, the first responders, ill equipped to deal with cave conditions were soon joined by volunteers from Finland, Britain, China, Australia and the United States. As the Thai Navy Seals and volunteers searched the flooded caves and laid guidelines to stake out sections of cave rescuers got their first lucky break. On the 10th day of the search a pair of British divers miraculously found the Wild Boar soccer team and coach clinging to a narrow ledge above a flooded cavern. The boys had run out of food and survived by licking water droppings from the side of the cave.

A decision to pump water from the flooded caves provided the search team and the boys with additional time before the next storm approached. Luck again smiled on the boys from an Australian doctor who was vacationing in Thailand volunteered to help. Dr. Richard Harris had the rare combination of being an experienced cave diver, photographer and was also known to authorities for his work on medical assistance teams in natural disasters in the Pacific region, and has taken part in Australian aid missions in Vanuatu. Dr. Harris stayed with the boys for three days in the cave and was one of the last to leave right before the pumps failed and the cavern flooded as the last survivors were evacuated from the cave ledge.

All of the volunteers and Navy Seals understood the risks each time they made the perilous journey to provide the boys provisions and prepare for their removal. Unfortunately, one of the heroes Saman Gunan, a retired Navy Seal, lost consciousness taking supplies to the boys.

So how did the Thai government officials manage 10,000 volunteers, the media circus and pressure from an entire country and the world to save the soccer team? Decision making under uncertainty with limited time represents the greatest challenge in risk management. Oxygen levels in the cave were being depleted by the volunteer rescuers and another storm was approaching within days. Risks had to be taken but time was running out!

The brilliance of the approach and simplicity of the solutions should be studied by all risk professionals. Instead of knee jerk reactions, the team took a very methodical approach to reduce the risk of human error. The soccer team was mentally and physically not able to swim out given the swift currents in the passage ways. Rescuers tested full-face masks on young volunteers to ensure a tight fit. Rescuers adapted a flexible plastic cocoon, called a Sked, which is used a rescue stretcher as a standard part of the US Air Force team gear. The boys were also given anti-anxiety medication so they would lie still and relax during the rescue mission. Relay teams escorted each group of boys out using a variety of makeshift solutions across rocky ledges and over through watery channels.

“The greatest risk and opportunity to manage risk is the human element”

So, what lessons should be taken from this improbable rescue? First, the Thai government set up a command center to deal with the emergency. The coordination of communications and integration of volunteers assigned to different tasks in short order was critical to mapping out a critical path to successful outcomes. Secondly, expertise from a cross disciplinary team of volunteers played a huge role in the improvisation of makeshift tools. Third, and I can only surmise how decision making occurred, the volunteers and governmental agencies put their egos in check for a common purpose. Next, the rescue team took the time to “test” their hypothesis even under time pressure. This is critical because too often business leaders simply go with their gut without understanding the boundaries of success or failure.

Lastly, the rescuers took calculated risks to minimize the uncertainties of the rescue. Luck also played a role including the Buddhist priest and Buddha amulets hanging around the necks of the Thai Navy Seals! Belief in the mission and trust in each team member is critical to success! The rescuers did not rely on luck for success they designed the outcome they sought to achieve.

If the mission had ended in tragic loss of the entire team some would lay blame or call the rescue a failure. I see it differently and marvel at the amazing things possible by minimizing the risk of the human element.

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