Spanish diver at Thai cave rescue: “It was a relief to hear them breathing”

Fernando Raigal celebrated his birthday trying to save the 12 boys and their coach who had been trapped underground by floods in Thailand

Spanish diver Fernando Raigal.
Spanish diver Fernando Raigal.EFE

“I was so happy to see them get out,” says Spanish diver Fernando Raigal, who helped rescue 12 children and their coach from a cave in northern Thailand. “Some of them were very small and had been sedated. But it was a relief to hear them breathing,” he told EFE after returning from Bangkok, where he had been living for the past few months.

The boys and the coach had been given sedatives “to stop them from panicking” during the rescue mission and were “unconscious” when they were brought out, explains Raigal. On Sunday, July 8, four boys were rescued, the next day another four were saved and on Tuesday, the rescue mission came to an end after five boys and the coach were safely brought out of the cave.

At the end of the day, we responded to a call for help and we did the best we could

Spanish diver Fernando Raigal

The boys, aged between 11 and 16, and the 26-year-old trainer, belonged to the soccer team Wild Boars and had entered the Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai province on Saturday, June 23, after completing a training session. A sudden downpour flooded part of the caves and left them trapped inside.

Raigal was told about what had happened by one of the boy’s mothers. “I received notice [on Sunday night] from someone I know and first thing Monday morning I was already helping in the cave,” says the diver from Ciudad Real. Raigal, who learned who to dive in the Armed Forces and is a specialist in working in the open sea, turned 33 when he was inside the cave helping with the preparations to find and save the children.

He helped set up the cables that guided a group of expert British divers as they searched for the boys. On July 2, nine days after they went missing, the boys were found hungry and in the dark.

“[The British divers] traveled five hours there and back. The rest of us waited for news. When they returned and told us they had found them it was incredible [...] the search mission had ended and now it was time for the rescue,” the Spanish volunteer explains.

Nearly a thousand people took part in the rescue mission, which was carefully designed to overcome the numerous complications. Saving the group meant diving with zero visibility in a labyrinth of tunnels filled with narrow passages and sharp rocks.

The difficulty of the mission became apparent with the death of Saman Gunan, a 38-year-old Navy Seal who lost consciousness from lack of air on a trip to bring supplies to the boys. Gunan’s colleagues have since begun a campaign to collect donations for his family.

Nearly 1,000 people took part in the rescue mission

During the underwater stage of the rescue, those who were trapped were given a special mask that covered their faces and allowed them to breathe normally for the 150 meters they were underwater. As soon as they were out of the water, a row of soldiers and volunteers, including Raigal, rushed to take them to the entrance of the cave, where emergency teams were waiting to transport them to Chiang Rai hospital. “There was a feeling of freedom seeing the last of the trapped being transported [...]. The goal was to get the boys out ‘whatever the cost’ and we did it,” says Raigal.

According to doctors, the 12 boys and the coach are now recovering normally in hospital and have no serious injuries. The first group rescued will be released from hospital on Sunday.

Despite the success of the mission, Raigal does not like to be called a hero: “At the end of the day, we responded to a call for help and we did the best we could.”

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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