THAILAND. Christoffer John "Cedjie" Aquino being playful in front of the camera outside the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system in Chiang Rai, Thailand, after one of their explorations of crevices that can be used as passages. (Cedjie Aquino Facebook)
THAILAND. Christoffer John "Cedjie" Aquino being playful in front of the camera outside the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system in Chiang Rai, Thailand, after one of their explorations of crevices that can be used as passages. (Cedjie Aquino Facebook)

Dabawenyo takes part in Thailand cave rescue

A GRADUATE of Ateneo de Davao University, who has been teaching for the past 17 years in Bangkok, Thailand, is the lone Filipino in a horde of international volunteers who arrived to help find the 12 young soccer players and their coach who are trapped deep inside a partially flooded cave in Chiang Rai province in northern Thailand.

The difference is, Christoffer John Aquino - a marketing graduate after jumping from computer science to architecture to engineering and finance and electronics and computer engineering - understood caves and limestone rocks that pushed him to the center of mountaineers and military men who are more familiar with solid ground, water, and vertical rope rescue.

The familiarity with how limestone nooks and crannies work might be the key to bringing out the 12 emaciated boys aged 11-16 and their coach, who were finally found alive by British cave divers on the tenth day since they were reported to have entered the Tham Luang Nang Non cave system on June 23, 2018, and trapped inside by a sudden and continuous rain.

"As a rock climber and past caver, I am familiar with limestone, which is what the mountain is made of. So I was called in to help find an exit passage through cave channels," Aquino said in an interview through voice call and private message Tuesday, July 3.

Aquino describes himself as a teacher from Monday to Friday and a rock climbing instructor and guide from Saturday to Sunday.

"I am working on developing climbing routes here in central Thailand," he said.

Two kilometers in

Rescuers found all 12 boys of the Wild Boar soccer team and their coach alive around two kilometers into the cave and somewhere between 800 meters to one kilometer below the surface, according to a British Cave Rescue Council briefing note.

A video released early Tuesday by the Thai navy showed the boys in their soccer uniforms sitting on a muddy slope inside the cave above the water as a spotlight, apparently from a rescuer, illuminated their faces.

Chiang Rai provincial Governor Narongsak Osatanakorn said the 13 were in the process of being rescued, but he cautioned that they were not out of danger yet.

"We found them safe. But the operation isn't over," he said in comments broadcast nationwide, referring to the complicated process of extricating them.

Family members of the missing hugged each other as they cheered the news. Aisha Wiboonrungrueng, mother of 11-year-old Chanin Wiboonrungrueng, smiled and hugged her family as news of their discovery spread. She said she would cook for her son a Thai fried omelet, his favorite food, when he returns home.

"When the medics have evaluated the kids to see if their health is in good condition, we will care for them until they have enough strength to move by themselves, and then we will evaluate the situation on bringing them out again later," Narongsak said.

Anmar Mirza, a leading American cave rescue expert, said many challenges remain for the rescuers. He said the primary decision is whether to try to evacuate the boys and their coach or to supply them in place.

"Supplying them on site may face challenges depending on how difficult the dives are," Mirza, coordinator of the U.S. National Cave Rescue Commission, said in an email. "Trying to take non-divers through a cave is one of the most dangerous situations possible, even if the dives are relatively easy. That also begets the question: If the dives are difficult then supply will be difficult, but the risk of trying to dive them out is also exponentially greater."

This is where Aquino's team might come in. Originally just composed of Aquino, Sorn Yodkhamman and Chalermchai Phoungphae, they were joined by Dima Makhno, Smithy Totemchokchaikarn, Chystov Oleh, and Surasit Ratsamekkittikul at the site. The US military, which is also assisting in the rescue is considering approaching from above.

"Rainy season na kasi dito, and kung umulan, kahit na three to four hours lang, mataas na ang tubig (It's rainy season here. Just a three to four hours rain will flood the cave)," he said.

The passage they found is around 120 meters from where the soccer team is located.

"These are challenging conditions and there's a lot of consideration for safety as well as, the environment outside is contributing to the environment inside," said US Air Force Capt. Jessica Tait, part of a 30-member US military team assisting in the search, referring to the rain that has been flooding the cave.

"So I'd say, yeah, it's an accurate statement that it's challenging," she added.

One and only

Incidentally, as international media poured in to cover the news, Aquino's pink shirt printed with "Climb Philippines" was easy to spot amid fatigues and dark colors. Thus, just about every volunteer and parent waiting for news were aware that the Philippines is among the volunteers. Except that Aquino is the only Filipino there.

A team of volunteer Filipino cave rescue experts coming from Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao belonging to the Philippine Speleological Society were waiting to be deployed since Day 3 of the rescue, but failed to fly out as a request for a Philippine Air Force C130 plane failed to push through.

Many of their equipment are pressurized and will not be accepted in commercial planes, Aquino said of the dilemma of the Philippine volunteers. Still, Aquino was thankful for the quick response and massing up of the Filipino cave experts.

He said he merely sought the help of fellow Dabawenyo Earl Bontuyan and a team of 21 quickly gathered from all over the country. He named the 21 and sent their gratitude to them.

They are: Cave rescuers: Dennis Ararao, Mikael Vincent Cuevas, Glenn Paclijan, Paul Donato Quinto, Randy Salazar, Jason Garrido, Vincent Villarosa, Allan Herbolario, Marc Mentens, Reynaldo Bagayas, and. Delvin Dumaraog. Cave divers: Jake Miranda, Juan Naval, Bernil Gastardo, Alex Santos, Ram Yoro, Jaime Lapac, Lyndon Cubillan, Xavier Mendiola, Paul Nielsen, and Daniel Burgaud.

"To these guys.... who are from all over the Philippines, who left their jobs and flew to Cebu to form a QRF and had been on standby since this ordeal started... Though they weren't able to get here, their hearts and thoughts were with those 13 souls. Good sirs and Madammes, THANK YOU!!!!! DAGHAN SALAMAT!" Aquino wrote on his Facebook account.

At the onset of the search and rescue was the realization that Thailand does not have an organization that specializes in cave rescue. Aquino is now with a bigger team that includes geologists and geographers.

"Ang team ko found the holes. Then we relay the info sa camp leader who is a geographer and lead investigator. I share maps and intel na makuha ko sa base and I add my opinions," he said in describing what they do. (With report from AP)

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