The rescue of 12 boys and their soccer coach who were trapped deep in a cave in Mae Sai, Thailand, by flooding from monsoon rains in late June captured worldwide attention.
"Miraculous!" was the common exclamation made in response to the news when the last boy and coach were escorted out of the cave.
But I take issue with the term "miraculous" as a suitable descriptor for what occurred during the 18-day, subterranean internment of the boys and coach. Framing their rescue as a miracle does a disservice to the lesson that should be taken away from the event.
That's not to say I don't appreciate the enormity of the challenge met by the rescuers. On the contrary, I have experience that provides me with insight into the severe obstacles that encumbered the cave rescue at Mae Sai.
For several years I served as a trooper on the emergency services unit of the New Jersey State Police. Our unit was cross-trained in SWAT, heavy-duty rescue, and underwater recovery. I had my share of risk-taking during those years, and was lucky to come home after work on a few days. But nothing rattled me more than what I had to do as a police scuba diver.
Most of my unit's dive jobs involved searching for evidence from major crimes or the bodies of drowning victims. Most were conducted in polluted waters in urban New Jersey. It was impossible to see anything in the murk a foot below the surface. We dived in two-man teams, following anchored guidelines by feel and searching by groping in the bottom muck, which was often cluttered with debris.
On one dive, my partner became entangled in wire cable under 30 feet of water in a strong current, and began to panic. He relied on me to get him freed, which I did—working blindly—after some very long minutes of effort.
Years later, I vividly recall the pit in my stomach when I struggled to disentangle my diving partner. I remain undecided on whether being in my partner's position would have felt more threatening than the pressing burden I carried for being responsible to help him.
Then there was a dive in a frozen lake, where we cut a hole into ice several inches deep. We again depended on guidelines, including one leading back to the hole, which was only visible from underwater if you were positioned directly underneath it. If you had a problem during the dive, like an equipment failure, survival meant getting back to the hole, which could be 35 yards away along the lake bottom, and then another 50 feet above.
Collectively, these scuba diving experiences help me understand what the rescue divers at Mae Sai faced, but only to a limited extent.
To reach the trapped kids and coach, the rescue divers at Mae Sai had to proceed blind, with no ability to surface if there was a problem, for far more distanced and prolonged dives than I had ever undertaken. They then had to escort those kids and coach back along the same route.
None of the people trapped in the cave had ever done scuba diving. Some couldn't swim. Nine were under the age of 15. All were physically compromised after days of lacking light and sufficient oxygen, warmth, and food.
And the rescue divers had to attempt this after their colleague, 38-year-old Saman Kunan, a former Navy SEAL and triathlete, had died trying to navigate the same route in the cave.
The fact that all 12 boys and their coach were brought to safety under such circumstances seems more like the conclusion of a fictional superhero movie. But something less fantastic brought about this happy ending: a powerful ethos employed by the rescuers at Mae Sai.
First, the courage of the rescue divers cannot be overstated. But if you ask them where it came from, I'll bet every one of them will answer that they found it in their purpose; there were kids at the other end of a flooded passageway that would die if they didn't risk their own lives and use their special skills to help them.
Then there was the resolute and thoughtful decision-making steering the rescue operation, seemingly unhindered by personal ambition and ego. That leadership facilitated effective collaboration, including participation by people from several countries and cultures; international borders and political and religious ideology became meaningless.
Courage, compassion, skill, and altruism. They formed the ethos that more than anything else explains the successful rescue of the 12 boys and soccer coach. They are attributes available to human beings that enable us and our communities to achieve what appears to be impossible. Unfortunately, we Americans are increasingly leaving them on the shelf.
If we had employed a "Mae Sai ethos" as a nation, we would have never allowed more than 1,800 people to be killed by the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina, a storm we watched heading to our shores for days. That ethos would have, instead, assured that we used our abundant resources and know-how to move those people out of harm's way.
A "Mae Sai ethos" would never permit so many of us to purchase firearms fearing for our personal safety, when the profusion of guns in our country makes our general populace less safe—especially our schoolchildren. Instead, it would drive us to adopt sensible policies that would eliminate most gun deaths, and make our communities safer for all residents.
And a "Mae Sai ethos" would never tolerate the separation of children from parents seeking refuge or a better life by crossing our borders. Rather, it would lead us to dismiss the groundless fear of immigrants promulgated by power-seeking politicians and ideologues, to accommodate a far greater number of families seeking asylum, and reform immigration law to better serve our economy's need for labor and foreign people willing to provide it. Δ
Scott Fina is a Santa Maria resident and holds a Ph.D. in political science. Send comments through the editor at email@example.com write a letter for publication and email it to