Mission impossible: Behind the scenes at Tham Luang’s deadly cave

Mission impossible: Behind the scenes at Tham Luang’s deadly cave
James Massola (right) with his translator, Art.

Monash Arts alumnus James Massola takes us behind the scenes during the miraculous rescue of 12 soccer teammates and their coach from a flooded cave in Thailand during July. Iain Cullen and Julie Tullberg report.

 
In the depths of Tham Luang cave, about four kilometres through a labyrinth of flooded tunnels, 12 soccer players and their coach were virtually entombed.

After two British divers found all 12 boys and coach Ekkaphon Chanthawong alive after 10 days, the mammoth task remained – to return the boys to their families.

As news broke of the trapped Wild Boars soccer team, cave diving experts from around the world converged on Chiang Rai in northern Thailand.

Among the chaotic scenes, Monash alumni and The Age’s South-east Asia correspondent James Massola was one of hundreds of journalists to cover the dangerous rescue mission.

However, Mr Massola knew the recovery operation was life-threatening.

“I don't mind admitting that I didn't hold out a lot of hope that the boys would be rescued,” Mr Massola, who arrived in Chiag Rai on July 3 with Walkley award-winning photographer Kate Geraghty.

The media flocked to the cave to report on the rescue. Picture: James Massola

“The conditions in that cave were incredibly difficult. The boys hadn't eaten for days on end before being discovered, they weren't good swimmers, and their oxygen was running low.

“Expert divers said it was just about mission impossible to get them out.”

The death of retired Navy Seal Saman Gunan sent shockwaves around the camp.

“Thai Navy Seals, friends of his, were crying. We were all pretty upset and things looked hopeless,” Mr Massola said.

“But all you can do, as a reporter, in a moment like that, is put your head down, put the emotions out of your mind and concentrate on telling people back in Australia what you know – the who, what, where, when and why – without letting that emotion get in the way.”

 

I don't mind admitting that I didn't hold out a lot of hope that the boys would be rescued. The conditions in that cave were incredibly difficult: they hadn't eaten for days on end before being discovered, they weren't good swimmers, and their oxygen was running low. Expert divers said it was just about mission impossible to get them out.

– James Massola

 

Each morning and evening, James Massola would walk up this track to base camp. It was about a kilometre long. Picture: James Massola

Mr Massola filed constantly for breaking news feeds of Fairfax publications, particularly The Age and Sydney Morning Herald, posted updates on social media platforms and wrote about 30 print stories during his intensive 10-day assignment.

During the successful recovery of all 12 boys and the coach, Mr Massola worked with total focus while euphoric scenes erupted.

“No one could quite believe it – but, again, you can't think about that,” he said.

“What you have to do is just concentrate on your job, on checking the facts, talking to your sources and making sure you double or triple check everything you can so you can write an accurate story.”

Mr Massola, who graduated from Monash University with a Master of International Relations and an Arts degree, reported up to 18 hours a day during the rescue.

“The logistical challenges were tough, as they always are on an overseas assignment,” he said.

“I don't speak Thai, so I was relying on my translator Art to be as accurate as possible – and as quickly as possible – with every statement from the Thai authorities.

“We made a smart choice early on to stay as close as possible to the cave, in a $12-a-night hotel. The beds weren't comfortable, but we could be on site at a moment's notice and after an 18-hour day, a short car trip makes a big difference.”

 

The Thai military arrive to prepare for the cave rescue operation. Picture: James Massola

 

Communications back to The Age and Sydney Morning Herald offices were a challenge too, Mr Massola said.

“With several hundred journalists on site, the local 3G and 4G telephone networks were often slow as TV stations jammed cell towers as they sent vision back to their offices around the world,” he said.

“I also learned the value of a good pair of gumboots.”

Mr Massola unearthed a key story; the cave’s flood waters started rising as the last few divers returned to the cave’s entrance – and news of the dangerous conditions remained buried.

“Actually, we didn't know the divers were at risk as the final rescue was being completed,” he said.

“People were celebrating the boys all being freed but I remember sweating for a few hours on whether the Seals who had stayed with them had also got out. They did, thankfully.

“But we – and the world – only found out the next day about how dangerous those last hours had been when we took a chance and tracked down the Australian divers at their hotel. Thankfully they agreed to talk and we had another big, big story on the day after the rescue finished.”

Mr Massola, who was Lot’s Wife global affairs editor during his student days at Monash, cherishes his privileged position while documenting historical events throughout Asia.

“Stories like this remind me just what a privilege it is to be on the spot, witnessing and reporting on moments where the whole world is watching,” he said.

Mr Massola, a former Press Gallery reporter in Canberra, said the cave rescue was unlike any other story he has covered during his journalism career.

“I've covered every leadership change and spill in Canberra since Tony Abbott replaced Malcolm Turnbull as opposition leader in December 2009, which as we all know, is rather a lot,” he said.

“Those were monumental, nation-changing moments. This was completely different, and probably bigger. The human-interest factor was huge.

“We didn't know what would happen to those boys. No one did. I still can't quite believe they all got out safely.” 

You can follow James Massola’s career at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

His new book, The Great Cave Rescue, is expected to be released this October.