Forget Elon Musk. Read About These Surprising Heroes of the Thai Cave Rescue Everybody Else Forgot

If you’ve ever contributed to a team but didn’t get any recognition, I’ve got a story for you.

Even just figuring out their part in this story requires some guesswork. Finding them by name would probably be impossible. They’re probably just fine with never having their story told. But their story is worth telling.

The long line of problems

To understand their role, we have to quickly recount the tactical story of how the boys and their coach were rescued. We’ll number this to make it easy to keep track:

  1. We start with the team of international cave divers and Thai Navy SEALs who found and stayed with the 12 youth soccer players and their coach. These people are true heroes, as is the diver who lost his life in the effort, and who will be remembered for a long time.
  2. Of course, finding the boys was only step one. Getting them out was an incredibly challenging mission. As time ran out, rescuers made the dangerous call that they’d have to rig the boys in dive equipment, and bring them out partially submerged on an hours-long trip.
  3. This was difficult even for experienced cave divers. None of the boys could swim, let alone use dive equipment. So, the rescuers had to find a way to keep malnourished, scared kids comfortable during the rescue–and most importantly, avoid panic. The idea was basically the least bad option.
  4. They decided to sedate the boys during the escape. This was extremely dangerous, and the rescuers did not expect a 100 percent survival rate. But they felt there was no other choice. As Thai Navy SEALs and U.S. military officials explained it to the Thai government, according to The Washington Post, the choice was either “save most of them now, or lose all of them soon.”`

The Australian doctors

Anesthesia is a medical specialty, obviously. The rescuers needed people who (a) could dive and reach the boys, and (b) then administer the drugs in as safe a manner as possible.

Enter Richard Harris and Craig Challen, two Australian expert cave divers. Harris happens to be a practicing anesthesiologists, while Challen is a retired veterinarian. (They’re both big heroes in this story–widely praised, and rightly so.)

Even getting them into Thailand in the first place presented a problem. The Australian government reportedly had concerns about Harris and Challen’s legal exposure. Because even under ideal circumstances (like in a hospital), anesthesia carries some risk. Never mind in this incredible situation, in which they expected not all the boys would survive.

So, how do you work things out very quickly, and under extreme conditions, so that two foreign doctors volunteer to perform a risky mission in a foreign country, but find a way to exempt them from the country’s legal system if things go wrong? 

Better call the lawyers

An official source confirmed to Four Corners that Dr Challen and Dr Harris were given diplomatic immunity ahead of the risky mission, after negotiations between Australian and Thai Government officials.

Diplomatic immunity. Of course. Treat them like official Australian diplomats, as opposed to private citizen volunteers.

I’m a lawyer (currently non-practicing), and I spent a lot of time thinking about problems like this years ago in the U.S. Army JAG Corps. But this solution was so smart, straightforward and elegant–and I’m not sure I would have thought of it.

The negotiators for the Thai and Australian governments–and I’m going to go out on a limb and bet that some or all of them were lawyers–figured it out.

We’ll probably never know their names. But without them, there’d have been no legal protection for the Australian doctors in case something went wrong in this extremely risky rescue–and it’s quite possible the rescue wouldn’t have happened.

And to me, they represent all the thousands of other nameless people who came together to contribute, without knowing 

So, forget about Elon Musk. And forget about that pithy line from Shakespeare. Next time there’s a big emergency, first thing we do? Call all the lawyers.

By the way, here’s the Facebook post that Dr. Harris wrote on the way home to Australia after the rescue. Its tone of gratitude could teach some other players in this whole affair an important lesson.  

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