Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

New film follows the divers who risked it all in the Thailand cave rescue


A new documentary gives us an up-close, terrifying look at a daring rescue from three years ago, when 12 boys and their soccer coach were trapped inside an underwater cave in northern Thailand.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: They became stranded in the dark tunnels after a sudden and continuous downpour blocked all exits.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This rain is going to get worse and worse and worse as the months go by - four months of monsoon.

MARTÍNEZ: The boys had been playing in the cave when it flooded. And as the water poured in, they went searching for higher ground. Rescue teams struggled to even reach the boys, who were trapped a mile inside the dark maze of caverns.

CHAI VASARHELYI: At first, like, they didn't know if the children were alive, and it was very much in their thoughts that it was just going to be a body recovery. But there still was a chance they could be alive, so it was still worth trying to push through.

JIMMY CHIN: They were faced with basically, like, whitewater rapids and water rising all the way to the top of the cave. I mean, that is absolutely a terrifying situation for anybody.

MARTÍNEZ: Those are the voices of husband-and-wife filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi. They also directed the Oscar-winning documentary "Free Solo" in 2018. Their new film, called "The Rescue," recounts the massive rescue operation inside the cave in Thailand. The Thai government and the country's navy SEALs team up with a small crew of amateur cave divers from around the world, but they're faced with impossible odds to save the kids. It's a race against time, and the rescuers quickly run out of options.

VASARHELYI: It comes down to this - I don't know - truly, like, a ludicrous plan where it seemed like the only shot they had at saving even one child was to dive them out anesthetized.

MARTÍNEZ: That's the part, I think, that really blew me away is that they had to sedate the kids to take them underwater and just drag them.

CHIN: Yeah. I mean, you have to also remember that it's pitch black, the water is completely muddy. So they're literally diving blind, trying to find their way through this labyrinthian cave.

MARTÍNEZ: And, Jimmy, tell us why they made the decision to sedate the kids. Why did they have to do that to try and effectively get them out?

CHIN: Well, earlier on, they found, you know, four water workers that had been trapped and had missed an evacuation. And they had to dive these, you know, grown men out of this cave. And these men, who were underwater for maybe 30 seconds, completely panicked. It turned into what they called an underwater wrestling match. And they just knew after that experience - they were like, there's no way. You know, we're talking now about trying to dive out kids for two to three hours.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, the film focuses on this international team of cave divers who pretty much dropped everything that was happening in their lives to join this very big rescue effort. Tell us about these guys.

VASARHELYI: Well, I mean, it's a crew of misfits. I mean, they're not professional cave divers. They're amateurs. You know, Rick Stanton, who's kind of, like, the head of the operation, is a retired fireman. John Volanthen is a IT consultant. You know, one is a meteorologist, another electrician, another a rope specialist, like, at a power plant. And even the Thai navy SEALs or the U.S. parajumpers were not equipped to cave dive. Like, no one can do this. It was a very specific talent, and it was this, you know, motley crew.

CHIN: Yeah. I mean, I think, like Chai said, you know, it draws a very particular type of personality. You know, these are highly calculated people, right? Like, there's an aspect of it where they are functioning in a very high-stakes environment where a mistake could be fatal.

MARTÍNEZ: All of that footage - how did you guys wind up getting all that footage?

VASARHELYI: There had always been a rumor. Like, John Volanthen and Rick Stanton would talk about how they remember filming because they were given a GoPro by the Thai navy SEALs. And most notably, it was, like, the shot that I always called the holy grail, which was - John was like, I know I filmed it when I led the boys in a motivational cheer when we found them. So on that glimmer of hope, we began talking to the Thai navy SEALs for - and we negotiated with them for about two years. And it was only after my second vaccine that I went to Thailand and, you know, kind of tracked down the admiral and his wife of the Thai navy SEALs and convinced them to share their footage. And we thought it was going to be - I don't know - maybe 60 minutes of which a few minutes are usable. And it turned out to be 87 hours. So it changed everything.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, Chai, can you tell us a bit about the boys' parents? - 'cause we see them throughout the film. And I can't imagine putting myself in that situation, if it's my kid in that cave. I mean, they're holding out hope for 17 days, each waiting to find out if their kid made it out alive. Tell us about those parents and how they actually made it without just completely losing it.

VASARHELYI: I think they did kind of lose it. I think especially the first 10 days, when you don't know if they're alive or not - and then understanding that they're trapped. It was really important for us to kind of explore the faith systems of, like, northern Thailand in this - in Chiang Rai in that, you know, who's to say that it wasn't, like, the parents' prayers that actually saved the children? When all hope was lost, like, they still found a place, like, to pray. And the monk that comes to visit, Kruba Boonchum, played a very important role in the rescue, providing some hope for the families and, you know, ultimately for the children as well. You know, I think those bracelets that he sent in were really important for their morale.

MARTÍNEZ: And those bracelets were blessed by him. So he sent them in, and there was initially some opposition toward taking in bracelets in addition to all of the other things. I know it's a tiny little bracelet, but it's something more to carry into this cave. But the whole point of morale being at a premium here won out. That argument won out.

VASARHELYI: You know, it's one of my favorite moments in the story in that it really kind of brings to light the East-West kind of friction because it really highlights how so many different people from different nationalities, different languages - you know, professionals and volunteers - came together.

MARTÍNEZ: At the end of things, I mean, how close did everyone come to not making it?

CHIN: I mean, I think that there was the potential for disaster to happen around every single corner, even a bump on the face with the types of masks that they had on. There was no redundancy in the systems, where if there was water that got into their masks, they would have drowned.

MARTÍNEZ: And the amazing part, Jimmy, is that, you know, when it comes to the power of prayer, people swear by it. That monsoon should have happened, and it didn't. And it gave them just enough time to make this happen.

CHIN: Yeah, absolutely - because it floods completely a day or two later, and there would have been no chance of anybody surviving.

MARTÍNEZ: Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi, thank you both very much.

VASARHELYI: Thank you.

CHIN: Thank you.

MARTÍNEZ: The documentary is called "The Rescue."

(SOUNDBITE OF MARCO BELTRAMI'S "TEFLON CORNER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.