By Dom Galeon
Images by Cedjie Takumi Aquino
Over the past several weeks, most of the world had been following football, thanks to the ongoing World Cup in Russia that’s about to head into the finals. But in Thailand, football had been in the headlines, not because of the once-every-four-years competition, but for a very different reason.
I first saw it on cable TV news last June 29, Friday. A football team, 12 boys aged 11 to 17 and their 25-year-old coach, had gone missing somewhere in the jungles of northern Thailand’s Chang Rai Province. I didn’t pay much attention to it, not knowing that the boys had been missing since June 23 and thinking that they probably just found shelter to let the heavy rains that have been pouring over Thailand subside, so they would most likely come out sooner than later. A couple of days passed, and the news hadn’t changed. The boys were still missing, says one American reporter.
People were speculating about what could’ve happened, and the likeliest of all possibilities was that they were trapped inside a cave. Presumably, the boys had gone on an excursion to Tham Luang Nang Non, which is Thai for the Great Cave of the Sleeping Lady, a system of caves located inside the Doi Nang Non mountain. With a continuous downpour of rain, the cave must’ve flooded, trapping the boys and their coach inside. Indeed, that had been the case, as a team of three divers eventually found the missing children, huddled together on a ledge somewhere deep inside the cave, almost 10 days after they had been missing.
With the missing football team found, it was time to get them out of the cave. That wasn’t going to be easy, as most of the cave was still submerged and diving through all the flooded areas was the only way out. The boys also had no strength left—they survived over a week without food thanks to deep meditation, I later found out—necessary for such a dive, and the continuous rains could very well trap both the divers and the boys inside.
What was a missing persons case became a race against time, as Thai authorities scrambled to figure out a way to get the boys and their coach out. There were two options: take the boys one by one on an assisted dive or find an alternative way out of the cave by scaling Doi Nang Non. Volunteers started pouring in from all over Thailand, and among these was 38-year-old Cedjie Takumi Aquino, a Filipino teacher who’s been living in Thailand since 2001. Originally from Davao, Cedjie has long considered himself a lover of mountains and the outdoors but he never thought of himself as an expert, he tells the Manila Bulletin in an exclusive interview.
I’ve been working with kids for the past 20 years now, and just imagining how those boys were feeling inside that dark, cold, and damp cave, we all couldn’t help but just be dedicated and eager about finding them. We couldn’t care less about being recognized for what we were doing.
“I am not an expert,” Cedjie says. “I was trying to get the experts in.” A day after the football team and their coach had been found, Cedjie started reaching out to two of his friends back in the Philippines, Earl Bontuyan and Rene Baliong, who were both part of “a group of serious cavers and rescuers,” he says. “I was trying to get them into Thailand to be part of the rescue team. I sent them a message around 2 a.m, and by 6 a.m. I received a message from Earl, who told me that he had already posted a nationwide shoutout for volunteers. By noon, there were a total of 21 responders from all over the country. I spent the whole day trying to call the person who is spearheading the operations.”
Unfortunately, none of the volunteers from the Philippines could be brought to Thailand, so Cedjie became the only Pinoy who would be part of the rescue efforts. “At around 5 p.m. that same day, I received a call requesting me to assist in the operation,” he recounts. “I told them, I am not a diver nor a cave rescuer. But the guy who called me explained, ‘We don’t need divers, we have plenty now. I see you are experienced in climbing rocks. We want you to climb the cliffs and find holes. We are now looking for alternative passages into the cave.’ Since this was indeed my field, I said yes.”
Cedjie tells me that he has been inside a cave before, and his “passion for rocks” had come from Earl and Rene, whom he used to accompany to their cave explorations back when he was in high school at the Ateneo de Davao.
“Later that evening, I was picked up at home by two other civilians, Uthit ‘Sorn’ Yodkhamman and Chalermchai ‘Chai’ Phoungphae. I know one of them from the local climbing community here in Thailand. Both were also called into the field because of their knowledge of rocks. We drove for nine straight hours, leaving Bangkok at around 1 a.m. the following day. I brought with me a complete set of equipment, I‘d say 40-kilograms-worth of climbing gear.”
The three of them were to become a part Camp Geo, which was composed of two teams working to find an alternative way out of the Luang Nan caves—a team of vertical climbers who called themselves Team Hyperventure and Team Freedom, where Cedjie was assigned. Also part of Team Freedom were Chai and Sorn, an American by the name of Jordan, Christian from Cameroon, Alec and Dima from Russia, and another pair of Thais named Smithy and Eye, who was their resident geologist. Leading both teams was head geographer Anukoon Sorn-ek, a local adventure expert.
“Our team, who all just met and assembled on site, was composed of a multi-billionaire, a doctor, a football player, a geologist, a geographer, a physicist, and a nobody,” Cedjie says, referring to himself as the nobody, in his characteristic humor
I asked him about that, why we seemed very jolly. “Dude, with all that I’ve seen and experienced, with the life I have lived, you have to be happy. Life’s too short to be too serious,” Cedjie, who’s a father of two, tells me.
The site of their operations was a side of the mountain, a valley covered with thick vegetation, where they were expected to collect information on crevices that officials previously saw on a cliff using a drone they flew to scan for holes from above.
“We scaled the rock face that they wanted checked. Immediately we knew why they needed climbers,” Cedjie says. It was a virgin mountain, he adds, which means it had not been bolted with anchors that provide climbers some sort of protection in case they slip. “It was roughly 300 meters high and was at a slight angle, say 20 to 30 degrees. It had to be climbed traditionally, which required specialized gears called cams and nuts.”
After planning routes, Team Freedom scaled the mountain, looking for wholes that could potentially serve as an exit for the trapped football team. They found and explored some. In total, they spent six days, eight hours, and 36 minutes working. Cedjie couldn’t give me more details regarding their operation as they had been instructed to keep most of it confidential. He did tell me about what the whole experience was like.
“The whole experience was a mix of emotions. You know how when you watch all these war films and you somehow don’t understand why they keep going back into the fight, it felt the same. The companionship was tight. People I just met, I ended up trusting them with my life,” Cedjie explains. “We also had our moments of laughter, to break the seriousness and the silence.”
Asked if his background as a teacher, handling what he calls “intensive English” classes for high school students at a local government school, helped push him to find the kids, Cedjie says, “I guess so. I’ve been working with kids for the past 20 years now, and just imagining how those boys were feeling inside that dark, cold, and damp cave, we all couldn’t help but just be dedicated and eager about finding them. We couldn’t care less about being recognized for what we were doing.”
In the end, Thai authorities decided to go with the diving plan to bring the football team out of the cave, and all 12 boys plus their coach had already been rescued by the time I was writing this. “Thank God, Allah, and Buddha,” Cedjie wrote in one Facebook post. It all ended well, thankfully. But he reminds me not to forget that the operation was “a dark one.” They had lost one of the rescuers, he says, a man by the name of Saman Gunan, whom Cedjie described as “an inspiring person, a hero.”
For Cedjie, the story of these Thai boys and all the volunteers who helped rescue them from Luang Nang cave, is one of hope. “No matter what your color, race, or nationality is, when your intentions are pure, when you let the good inside you be heard,” he says, “no matter how difficult the obstacles are, it can be overcome.”