Regardless of their time, place or circumstance, crises show character. In the worst of moments, people either rise to the occasion or fall prey to it. Nowhere has this been on better display than in Thailand, where the rescue efforts brought a youth soccer team and their coach from the depths of a remote, flooded rocky cave. With a multi-dimensional team of Thai special forces, and engineering, geological, healthcare and emergency management counterparts from around the world, an unprecedented rescue turned the eyes of the world to the jungle border between Myanmar and Thailand.
The only thing that comes close to comparing to the events of the past few weeks are the other mindboggling rescues that freed the trapped miners in Chile (2010) and Pennsylvania (2002). In these cases, and others, the busy world stopped to gaze upon the incredible assembly of people working together nonstop to make the most improbable of rescues possible. With flashing lights, emergency vehicles and rescue personnel in action round-the-clock, and camera crews and reporters from around the world recording every second of it, you didn’t have to speak or understand the language of the people on the ground to feel and understand the tension they were enduring.
Every ticking minute was a minute of losing oxygen, increasing health risks to those trapped and rising dangers to the rescuers who were doing everything they could to succeed. But in this rescue, the most vulnerable included children.
There is not a person alive who doesn’t remember what it was like to be a kid and to find yourself suddenly lost. Maybe it was in a grocery store as you snuck away to go look for something. Or maybe on a hike with friends or a school group where you stopped to look at something while everyone else went ahead, or on a trip to a foreign country where the language and surroundings were completely unfamiliar and you had no idea of where you were or how to get where you were supposed to be.
Regardless of the circumstance, it is always bewildering to feel lost and out of place, but once you’ve found the people and location you were searching for relief and the feeling of “being found” become the most welcome of feelings.
But in this most recent circumstance in Thailand, this is not just a wrong turn in a store aisle or during a trek in the forest, or being a stranger in a strange land. This is being lost in utter darkness, with only a day’s worth of snacks, no water supplies and rising murky waters among narrow rock passages and ledges that only channel deeper into the Earth.
Every dramatic rescue has its challenges, but this one seemed to have force multipliers that didn’t stop. Weather, geography, murky water, darkness, dehydration, malnutrition, physical fatigue, distance, equipment/logistics, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, communications, age, physical and mental health conditions, and on and on. The list is brutal to consider.
But amid all those factors, from all appearances, differences in language, culture and even politics didn’t stop anything from happening. In fact, this incident seemed remarkably free of politics, which by itself is another miracle to celebrate. Thailand’s politics, like everyone else’s, are complicated with multiple factions and competing interests. All of that seemed to be set aside so everyone could focus on what was most important: saving 13 lives.
Even the international community, which can easily argue over the color of the sky, set aside its disagreements to mobilize whatever assistance and expertise they could to contribute to the rescue.
To their absolute credit, the Thai government empowered experts from their military, government and the international community to make the rescues happen. The after-action report (AAR) on this event will offer incredible lessons learned to build upon for the next time something like this occurs. And every possible community will be touched by that report, too.
While disasters and emergencies are never good things to happen, they do have a way of bringing out the best in people. We often see that in our own communities when floodwaters, fires or something else strikes. But when it happens on an international scale, the incredible amount of collaboration and coordination that takes place is immeasurable.
For all the diplomatic protocols and machinations that must be adhered to just to have a phone call between leaders of nations, those cumbersome steps all seem to fall by the wayside when rescuing lives can take place. Whatever country they may come from and different language they may speak, rescuers around the world speak in one tongue, with one voice, and serve one mission: save others.
As anguishing as it was to wait for the rescue efforts to get underway and be completed, I confess to feeling a deep sense of admiration and pride at so many different pieces coming together to serve a singular mission. For as troubled as the planet may often be, there are times we have our genuine moments of potential where we can make a true positive difference. It’s one of the noblest of features I’ve found in the emergency management and public safety communities. Where someone is at risk, there are those who head toward them to help – often at their own personal risk. Those decisions have heroic as well as tragic consequences because not every rescue has a happy ending. But it is those acts and actors that step onto that life-altering stage that really show us the best we really can be.
Over the past three weeks Thailand showed and reminded us of that special dimension and possibility. It also showed us how powerful the human character is during a crisis and its always humbling to see such courage and compassion on display and in action. It gives the world the one thing we all cherish: hope.
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