‘No Room for Error’: That’s How These PJs Remember the Thai Cave Rescue

Service Members Recall Helping in Worldwide Effort to Rescue Trapped Soccer Team

By Katie Lange, Department of Defense

U.S. Air Force Special Operations pararescuemen – called PJs for short – are some of the most highly trained emergency trauma specialists in the U.S. military. They can do it all, including jumping out of planes and SCUBA diving to get to people who need help in humanitarian and combat-related crises.

So when several PJs stationed at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, were called in late June to help rescue 12 young soccer players and their coach from a flooded cave in Thailand, they didn’t hesitate.

Pararescuemen Detail Thai Rescue Mission

“It was a situation that had never been attempted, let alone successfully,” said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ken O’Brien, a PJ from the 320th Special Tactics Squadron who took part in the endeavor.

But it’s one that O’Brien and Staff Sgt. Michael Galindo will never forget. Here are their stories.

First Things First: It Was Complicated

OK, so before I actually get to their stories, let me sum up the intricacies of this intense rescue. The cave system is about 6 miles long, and the boys got in through the main entrance. But they did so during monsoon season, so many of the chambers inside flooded, trapping them.

After nine days of searching, rescuers found the team on a ledge about 2 miles from where they entered.  Rescuers from all over the world were called in to help, and they often had to use hand-arm signals and white boards to communicate.

“We were working with teams from Australia, England and different European divers. There was a Chinese team and then multiple Thai teams, both military and civilian,” O’Brien said.

Rescuers were able to drain some of the floodwaters out of the cave system, but narrow, flooded passageways still blocked the boys from getting out on their own. After a LOT of planning, two divers were assigned to each child to help them navigate the passageways and dive through the flooded ones to get to safety. A rope system was set up where each boy was tethered to the diver in front of him, with a second diver bringing up the rear.

Graphic courtesy of The Guardian

More divers were set up throughout the caves to help carry the children from chamber to chamber when the water was low enough.

The Mission, In Their Own Words

O’Brien’s team was tasked with placing hundreds of air tanks in various chambers throughout the caves for the boys and their accompanying divers. That meant diving through dark caves – something only one of them had ever done – to get to the various passages.

“We had to follow a [tethered rope] line through this section … and it was just complete blackness,” O’Brien recalled, noting it was dark even with his headlamp on. “We would be by ourselves for almost 20 minutes trying to find the next guys [in the cave], dragging tanks along.”

At the request of the Royal Thai government, the U.S. sent a search and rescue team to assist Thai rescue authorities in finding 12 young soccer players and their coach. Air Force photo by Capt. Jessica Tait

O’Brien was in Chamber 3 and got to see the children come out of the water, one by one. Galindo was waiting with another team just outside of that area. He remembered the moment the first boy started coming his way.

“We all turned on our lights,” Galindo said. “They said he was alive on the walkie-talkie, which was a huge relief for everybody because no one knew what the outcome was going to be.”

Suddenly, about 100 feet away, lights and a rescue sled came into view, slowing inching toward them on the tethered static rope.

“When they hooked them up to my section, we had two safety lines. [Another sergeant] and his team were controlling his descent, and my team was controlling the rate he was coming to us because there were some sections where he was going quick, and then he would sag, so we would have to pull him across,” Galindo explained. “Not to mention that there were rocks in the way. We had a staged guy actually lift the [rescue sled] up because we didn’t want the child to hit his head on the rocks.”

“I knew this was who we’d been waiting for for two weeks now. Now, here he is, and his life is in my hands now – the rest of our team’s hands. There’s no room for error for a real-life mission.” -Staff Sgt. Michael Galindo

It was a surreal experience, he said.

“I knew this was who we’d been waiting for for two weeks now. Now, here he is, and his life is in my hands now – the rest of our team’s hands. There’s no room for error for a real-life mission,” Galindo said.

Once they disconnected the boy from the rope system, Galindo quickly assessed his condition and made sure he had enough air in his tank for the rest of the journey. He and three other men then very carefully walked the boy up a 30-foot-long slippery rocky slope.

“There was a handrail that the guys on the left side could actually hold onto so they could balance themselves so they weren’t slipping all over the place,” Galindo said. “There were about 20 Thai SEALs grabbing him and passing him off, one after the other, nice and slowly until we got him on flat ground.”

Airmen visit Tham Luang Cave in northern Thailand to meet with Royal Thai military officials and authorities to assess conditions June 28, 2018. Air Force photo by Capt. Jessica Tait

Then they reset the operation to wait for the next child.

Three days later, the last boy came out of the cave.

“As soon as we saw the last child leave my area, it was a great relief,” O’Brien said. But the mission wasn’t over.

“We still had multiple European divers still deep in the cave, and we had the four Thai divers. So, we went back up. We did our congratulations, but we understood that the mission wasn’t technically over. We got prepped for those other divers to come out,” O’Brien said. “Once we got everyone out of the cave, then it was time to finally relax. There were hugs, high-fives, and people were cheering. That was a very awesome moment.”

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Ken O’Brien (left) and Staff Sgt. Michael Galindo, both pararescuemen, prepare to help in the effort to rescue 12 trapped boys and their soccer coach from a cave in Thailand.

The operation was a massive success.

“We were very happy that all our training paid off,” Galindo said. “It was a very defining moment in my career.”

“It was way more successful that we actually thought it would be,” O’Brien said. “If it was our children or families, we would want people to step up and help us in that same situation.”

We know the whole world – which was watching – was thanking them and all the others who helped!

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