Andrew Munoz hopes the rescuers of the trapped soccer team in Thailand take their time and weigh all options before making any decisions that could lead to disaster.
Munoz, a paramedic and experienced spelunker from Duncan who has had his own near-death experience while underground, said the situation must be approached very cautiously by the Thai authorities and rescuers now that the 12 boys and their 25-year-old coach have been found safe and sound for the time being.
He said the soccer team, which is about four kilometres inside the flooded cave system, is currently secure and safe so no unnecessary risks should be taken, even if it means that the boys have to stay in the cave for an extended period of time until water levels recede.
A team of divers, medics, counsellors and Thai navy SEALs are now with the soccer team, providing medicine and food while experts assess conditions for getting them out; a task the government said would not be easy.
The team was discovered by the SEALs and two British cave diving experts on July 2, having been out of contact and in darkness since June 23 when a group outing at the caves ultimately led to a high-profile search and rescue effort.
The rescue teams are now giving crash courses in swimming and diving in case a decision is made to move forward with a risky plan to remove the soccer team through the flooded passageways in an effort to end their ongoing ordeal.
“Leaving them in there for a long period of time (estimates are for months) sounds crazy and it could the longest time spent underground by people in an emergency situation like this,” Munoz said.
“But when the risk is low, as it is for now, it would be difficult for the rescuers to go into a high-risk situation unless they are sure they have all their ducks in a row to ensure it is done as safely as possible.”
Munoz, who is the chairman of the Alberta & British Columbia Cave Rescue’s medical committee, had his own harrowing experience while caving on Vancouver Island in 2015.
Munoz, Jason Storie, also from Duncan, and four others went caving inside Cascade Cave, located just outside Port Alberni, on Dec. 5, 2015, in an adventure that almost became fatal.
Cascade Cave, popular with spelunkers, is 300 feet from top to bottom, with tight crawls and waterfalls included.
Munoz said a storm was brewing outside the cave while they were inside, and the water levels began to rise incrementally so that the cavers didn’t immediately recognize the danger.
He said about 200 feet down inside the cave in a place called Bastard’s Crawl, the culmination of several creeks converging and rushing out down a pair of waterfalls known as Double Trouble, Storie got caught up in the rising water and pinned to the wall with water surging over his head.
“He was fighting for his life,” Munoz said.
“I went in to assist, and then both of us got pinned up against the rocks. We finally freed ourselves and ended up trapped on a precarious ledge on top of the four-storey waterfall.”
In an attempt to warm up Storie, who was experiencing hypothermia, Munoz used a pocket stove in which he boiled water to pour down his caving suit.
Munoz said he and Storie were trapped on the ledge for more than 18 hours as the water poured through the cavern, making it impossible for rescuers, who were called to the scene by their fellow cavers, to get to them.
“We may as well as have been on the moon, as far as rescue was concerned,” he said.
“We had flashlights but spent most of our time in the dark because we didn’t want to waste the batteries. Like those kids in Thailand, we were together and that was a good thing. I couldn’t imagine having to go through that by myself.”
Munoz said the water levels finally began to drop the next morning, and he and Storie made their way back through the Bastard’s Crawl.
He said Storie was in pretty bad shape, with frozen legs that barely worked so that he had to painfully lift his legs with his hands to keep them moving.
They were met by rescuers from B.C. & Alberta Cave Rescue, B.C. Ambulance, RCMP and Alberni Valley Rescue Squad who were preparing for a second rescue attempt in an effort to save the two men.
“We were lucky to get out alive,” he said.
“It’s unbelievable that the soccer team in Thailand spent nine days in the cave before they were discovered. That wouldn’t happen on Vancouver Island because it’s just too cold here to survive that long.”
Munoz said that, despite how anxious everyone might be to get the boys to safety as soon as possible, he hopes the rescuers think long and hard before choosing to try and take them out using diving gear.
“It seems a lot of these boys don’t swim well, if at all, and it’s very technical cave diving even for the professional cavers on scene,” he said.
“The risks and benefits of such a move have to carefully weighed. However they get them out, if they do it successfully it will be the rescue of their careers.”