Shoalhaven paramedics explains dangers in Thai rescue

FLASHBACK: NSW Ambulance Specialty Casualty Access Team paramedic Jason Watson (centre) back in fresh air after his 11-hour rescue in the Bungonia cave system in 2014. Photo: Nick Moir
FLASHBACK: NSW Ambulance Specialty Casualty Access Team paramedic Jason Watson (centre) back in fresh air after his 11-hour rescue in the Bungonia cave system in 2014. Photo: Nick Moir

LIKE most of us, Shoalhaven paramedic Jason Watson has been watching the dramatic rescue operation in Northern Thailand to save the 12 young stranded soccer players and their coach in the Tham Luang Nang Non caves in Chiang Rai.

But Mr Watson, who is a member of the NSW Ambulance Specialty Casualty Access Team, (SCAT), finds himself in a unique position of actually knowing what the rescuers and the trapped boys are going through.

In February 2014 he was part of a SCAT team which rescued three trapped cavers in the underground complex at Bungonia.

He spent 11 hours underground in the rescue in which the experienced cavers – aged 21, 47 and 52 – became trapped when the caves flooded during heavy rain.

After finding them their main goal would be getting them all out alive. The elation of finding them would all evaporate if they lost just one of them.

Shoalhaven paramedic Jason Watson

“They were unaware of rain on the surface until water suddenly gushed into the cave they were in, leaving them trapped between two flooded areas,” Mr Watson said.

“Similar to the trapped boys the cavers found a ledge above the water.”

Joined by six cave rescue volunteers the first task was to locate the stranded trio and then attempt rescue them - not a simple task with Mr Watson actually becoming stuck as they tried to get through one of the tight openings.

“I was on my belly squeezing through this cave thinking the part up ahead looks even tighter. Then I got pinned between the floor and the roof, I couldn’t move forward. I was lying there taking breaths, staying calm,” he said.

“I don’t get claustrophobic but I wasn’t real thrilled at being stuck in a cave.

I got pinned between the floor and the roof, I couldn’t move forward. I was lying there taking breaths, staying calm.

Shoalhaven paramedic Jason Watson

“I exhaled as deeply as I could and pushed forward, but I got even more stuck. Only now I couldn’t breathe in or go any further so I had to back up quickly.

“Thankfully I got out and we eventually managed to get the trapped cavers out as well.”

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Mr Watson said he has been left in awe of the efforts to rescue the trapped team and their coach.

“It has been a huge effort and a credit to everyone involved,” he said “a real international effort and just shows what can be done when everyone puts their heads together for one cause.”

He said first and foremost the rescuers’ main focus would be on the trapped boys and their coach.

Tight spaces, weak, scared kids and throw in water as an extra dangerous element. You only need one to panic and it could end very badly. This rescue is remarkable.

Shoalhaven paramedic Jason Watson

“After finding them their main goal would be getting them all out alive. That would be the main priority. This whole rescue, the elation of finding them would all evaporate if they lost just one of them. You don't want to lose any of them - there were reports a couple of the kids and the coach were particularly weak.

“And there are so many issues with the boys - they have been underground for two weeks - you have to worry about how to keep them fed, keep them warm, maintain air quality.

“But there are other basic things like a latrine service -  the removal of waste becomes a priority, especially when it was first thought with the monsoon season upon them they might have to wait four months for rescue. It would have been a logistics nightmare.

“Just keeping them warm would be a challenge - caves are a constant 17 degrees - that’s cold - and we don't really know how much space they actually have. The media coverage hasn’t shown too much of the overall whole space they are stuck in.

“You have also consider the amount of medical personnel they also have down there trying to help the kids.”

He said apart from getting the boys out safely the second priority would be the safety of the rescuers themselves.

“They have to look after each other,” he said “ I was devastated when I heard one of the Thai divers had died. That to me was heartbreaking - one of the rescuers, an expert, got into a fatal situation. It just showed how perilous and dangerous this rescue operation was going to be.

“From my own experience I’ve done a lot of training in caves, particularly for cave rescues, this is a treacherous situation - flood waters, tight spaces, and no doubt scared kids.

I can’t talk highly enough of the two British cave divers who initially found the boys. They were incredible - to keep going, to push through those tight spots, to take off their tanks and push them in front of them just to keep gong - incredibly brave - they put their own lives at risk.

Shoalhaven paramedic Jason Watson

“You have to keep control and composure. The rescuers have to work in such tight spaces, let along water filled tight spaces. Incredible.

“I can’t talk highly enough of the two British cave divers who initially found the boys.

“They were incredible - to keep going, to push through those tight spots, to take off their tanks and push them in front of them just to keep gong - incredibly brave.

“They are the heroes - they put their own lives at risk. Interestingly there has been no real media attention on them.”

He said the third issue would be the media.

“There is so much world wide attention on this rescue,” he said “you would have to be so careful not to offend the media. They have the ability to make you look good or very bad. You have to keep them on side.

Just keeping them warm would be a challenge - caves are a constant 17 degrees - that’s cold - and we don't really know how much space they actually have.

Shoalhaven paramedic Jason Watson

“The logistics of the whole operation and now the rescues is huge.

“And then actually bringing the kids out - they go through water, under water and it’s a murky as anything, with all the people traipsing through it, the would be silt stirred up everywhere, let alone from the normal run off - you have scared kids, you only need one to panic and knock off a facemask and it could all go badly very quickly.”

But saying all that Mr Watson said he wouldn't have hesitated to volunteer for such a rescue if the need arose.

“I’d love to be part of it in any capacity, but I think that’s just me,” he said.

“I’m not a cave diver, but I’m a caver and I do dive, just not in caves.

“From a SCAT rescue point of view of course you would love to be over there helping. You always want to be part of the big jobs and this definitely is one of those.

“Yes I have watched the ongoing rescues with anticipation, I think like everyone has.

“After my experience at Bungonia of how tight that was, throw in kids, and water as an extra dangerous element this is remarkable.”

This story Bungonia cave rescuer: Thai cave rescue a logistical nightmare first appeared on Southern Highland News.