ONE year after 12 boys were incredibly rescued from a flooded Thai cave, a hero diver has returned to the site and found haunting messages left by the kids.
Mikko Paasi, 44, was stunned to find carvings spelling out children’s names and the words “lost boys” after digging his way into the dark chamber where the youngsters were found.
Hero diver Mikko, left, smiles beside some of the footballers he helped saved last year[/caption]
Mikko was one of more than 90 divers – including seven Brits – who saved the kids and their football coach after a shock monsoon trapped them inside the cave for an agonising 18 days last summer.
It turned out to be one of the most dangerous rescues in history.
Now, as Thailand marks one year since the last of the boys was brought out alive, Mikko exclusively tells Sun Online how he helped save the youngsters against all odds – and how he has been back to the site and uncovered hidden carvings and other lost relics.
“It was intense,” he says.
“We found a boy had carved his Facebook address on the wall. We found markings in Thai like ’13 boys lost’… and then there were dates like June 26.”
Rescue mission that gripped the world
Mikko was in Malta – where he runs the Koh Tao Divers school – when the news emerged that the Wild Boars boys, aged between 11 and 16, had got trapped while exploring the cave.
As a technical diving specialist with more than 20 years’ experience, he knew he could help.
“I felt like I had a responsibility,” says the Finnish dad-of-one, who lives with his wife, Krista, 33, and their three-year-old daughter.
“Nobody had found them yet. When I left it was my eighth wedding anniversary with Krista. Dinner turned into lunch at the airport and then I flew off.”
Incredible discovery by Brit ‘A-team’
By the time Mikko landed in Thailand the next day, the terrified youngsters had already been found alive by British diving ‘A-team’ Richard Stanton and John Volanthen.
But Mikko was to play an essential part in the high-risk rescue mission.
His first task was to dive into the cave with spare oxygen tanks for the boys and their coach, who were stuck in the Pattaya Beach chamber, more than two miles from the cave mouth.
For the next two days, he swam back and forth with the tanks, while checking the diving line running through the cave system to help guide the children out was still in place.
Every second counted, so Mikko slept just three hours a night.
Rescue workers are seen at the mouth of the cave last year – the flooding was worse inside[/caption]
“I called my wife daily – but it was hell for her because we were in the cave for 10 or 12 hours a day. She lost a bit of weight,” he says.
The ultimate risk and a tragic death
Mikko knew the job was going to be dangerous – but as a father himself, he understood the agony that the boys’ parents must be going through.
“My little girl was just two and a half. It made me be a bit more careful because I had a family to go back to but it gave me the strength to push forward,” he says.
Tragically, former Navy SEAL diver Saman Kunan died from a lack of oxygen on July 6 as he returned from delivering essential supplies to the football team.
And as well as risking their own lives, the divers knew the boys could die during the rescue mission.
“The odds of getting them out were quite slim,” says Mikko.
“We had to think we may lose people. We had to be able to live with that.”
On July 8, the first day of the rescue, the entrance to the cave was eerily quiet.
The world’s media, gathered at the site for weeks, had been moved away to allow divers from around the world, a doctor and other volunteers to get to work.
“It was eerie compared to the days before,” Mikko tells us.
“The other days it took an hour just to go to the toilet because of the amount of people.”
Timeline of the drama which gripped the world
June 23, 2018: 12 members of the local Wild Boars team and their coach, 25, became trapped in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave before being reported missing by worried parents
June 24: Search and rescue teams find soccer shoes and backpacks left behind by the boys near the cave entrance
June 25: As the search expands, handprints and footprints thought to belong to the boys are found further from the cave entrance
June 26: About a dozen Thai navy SEALs and others searchers inside the cave are seriously handicapped by muddy water that has filled some chambers to their ceilings
June 27: More heavy rainfall hampers search efforts, flooding underground passages faster than water can be pumped out
June 27: An American military team and British cave experts, along with several other private teams of foreign cavers, join the operation
June 28: Efforts begin to drain groundwater from the cave by drilling from outside into the mountain. A search for other entrances to the cave intensifies as diving is temporarily suspended for safety reasons
June 29: Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha visits the site and urges relatives of the missing not to give up hope. Efforts to drain the cave with pumps make little progress
June 30: The effort to locate the missing picks up pace again, as a break in the rain eases flooding in the system. In anticipation of finding the boys, an evacuation drill is held to practice the rescue
July 1: Rescue divers advance into the main passageway inside the flooded cave and set up a staging area inside. Thai navy SEALs reach a bend where the half-mile long passage splits in two directions
July 2: Two expert British cave divers locate the missing boys and their coach. They record video of the boys talking with them
July 3: The videos are released and show the boys taking turns introducing themselves, folding their hands together in a traditional Thai greeting and saying their names. The boys also say they are healthy. Diver Mikko arrives in Thailand from Malta
July 4: Seven navy SEALs and a doctor join the boys with food and medicine
July 5: The boys continue with diving lessons in case a decision is made to extract them through a route that is partially underwater. The effort to pump out water is increased
July 6: Officials indicate that they favour extracting the boys as soon as possible, fearing further danger if they are forced to stay inside by more rain causing additional flooding
July 6: A former Navy SEAL aiding the rescue effort dies from a lack of oxygen during his mission. Concern increases about lack of air supply inside the cave
July 7: Officials suggest that an underwater evacuation will be made in the following few days because of an incoming rainstorm
July 8: The official heading the rescue operation declares that “D-Day” has arrived as he announces the start of the operation. Divers, including Mikko, take four of the boys out through tight passages and flooded caverns
July 9: Divers bring four more boys to safety during the second day of the rescue operation. This leaves four lads and their coach still inside the cave
July 10: On the third day of the operation, divers rescue the remaining four boys and their footy coach, ending an ordeal that lasted more than two weeks
Boys sedated with club drug to keep them calm
By this point, the boys had been stuck underground for two weeks.
And one of the biggest concerns facing the team was how to keep them calm as they were extracted through narrow tunnels and openings as small as three feet wide.
The answer turned out to be club drug ketamine – which was injected into the children’s muscles to sedate them before they were guided through the murky floodwater.
Because the trance-like effects could wear off after just 30 minutes, Mikko and his colleagues had undergone a crash course on how to spot signs the kids were waking.
“We weren’t anaesthetists so it was difficult to spot the signs,” he tells us.
“We’d been shown how to do it and had practised with a plastic bottle.”
Mikko was stationed in the chamber next to Pattaya Beach for the rescue, where he was tasked with removing the children’s full-face masks and checking their vital signs.
Soon, the boys were being passed, one by one, into his arms.
“I met each kid the first time when they came out from the muddy water in the chamber where we were waiting for them,” he says.
Divers carrying kids under their arms
“The first kid was the most horrifying experience of all because you had no idea if they were strong enough to go through even the first space.
“But after seeing the bubbles and [a diver] rising from the mud with the kid under his arm and that he was breathing – that changed everything.
“Suddenly there was hope again.”
Fortunately, Mikko found all the boys were well and, after refitting their diving gear, he carefully passed them on to the next chamber where more divers were waiting.
“We had to administer a few sedative shots for the kids,” he tells us.
“But everything just went pretty damn fluently.
“It was amazing because there were so many things that could go wrong.”
Celebrations on the streets
Incredibly, by July 10, the entire group had been saved, after more than two weeks underground, sparking jubilant celebrations on Thailand’s streets.
“Sometimes I think of it and I still can’t understand how it went so well,” says Mikko.
“It was an amazing feeling.”
Chamber blocked off by huge sand wall
This March, Mikko and a group of cavers were asked by Thailand’s Navy SEALs to reenter the cave, which officials want to reopen to the public in the future.
Their aim was to survey it and try to reopen the Pattaya Beach chamber, which had been cut off by an enormous sand blockage.
And Mikko jumped at the chance to go back.
“We didn’t see s*** when we were diving last year,” says the Finnish diver, who also has a diving school in Koh Tao.
“I had questions, like if I had gone [a different way] would there have been more space? But when I saw it again, it was very tight.
“It was pretty emotional.”
Carvings, foil and a 20 Baht note
After digging through sand for four hours, the team made it into the chamber, where they discovered bits of foil, used to keep the boys warm, and a 20 Thai Baht (50p) note.
“In the furthest corner where the boys took shelter, next to the tunnel they tried to dig with their fingers, there was a little area and I found the note,” Mikko tells us.
He believes it was left behind by one of the youngsters.
The footage, taken by Mikko, shows the diver carefully examining the note – which bears an image of the Thai monarch’s face – remarking: “Look at that, the King was here all the time.”
He then ventures deeper inside the cave and finds the wall carvings, made by the boys as they desperately tried to find an escape route before heading back to the chamber to shelter.
Today, the carvings remain hidden in the massive cave, surrounded by six miles of tunnels, while the Baht note sits, framed, in a Chiang Rai museum dedicated to the rescue.
As for Mikko, his confidence has soared since he pushed himself to his limits to save the boys.
He’s met up with the kids several times and has even received the Knight of the Grand Cross of the Most Admirable Order of the Direkgunabhorn from the Thai King.
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“To meet the boys smiling and full of life was pretty emotional,” he says. “They are back to school and footie, and some of them have gained quite a bit of weight too.”
But one thing Mikko has yet to do is finish his anniversary celebrations with his wife.
“Our ninth anniversary was the second of this month. I was cave diving in Sardinia, surprise surprise!” he laughs. “But next year we’ll hopefully be together.”