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The Real Story Behind ‘Thirteen Lives’

The upcoming Ron Howard movie dramatizes the story of a boys soccer team trapped in a Thai cave for 18 days.
Tham Luang Cave Rescue Thirteen Lives True Story
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By  · Published on January 27th, 2022

Real Stories is a column about the true stories behind movies and TV shows. It’s that simple. This installment focuses on the true story behind Ron Howard’s next feature, Thirteen Lives. 

The inspiration for Thirteen Lives, the upcoming biographical drama film by Ron Howard, is one of those true stories that sounds like a nightmare. In the summer of 2018, in Thailand, a boys soccer team and their coach were trapped in a cave for 18 days. During that period, the story caught the attention of international news as millions of people waited to see what would happen to the boys.

Eventually, a group of divers made their way into the cave and saved the boys. Here is what happened.

Entering the Cave

On June 23, 2018, 12 young boys, all members of the Wild Boars soccer team, and the team’s assistant coach, Ekkapol “Ake” Chantawong (played in the movie by Teeradon Supapunpinyo), entered Tham Luang Nang Non, a cave complex located under Doi Nang Non, a mountain range that sits between Thailand and Myanmar.

Now, you may be wondering: why? According to the BBC, the team had agreed to go “sightseeing” after a training session. For the boys, who ranged in ages 11 to 16 at the time, this was their first visit to the cave. One of the boys, Peerapat Sompiangjai, needed to get home early: it was his 17th birthday party.

After spending some time in the cave, they noticed something was not right. As they attempted to walk back out of the cave, the team encountered pools of water. They began to wonder whether they had gone the wrong way. Eventually, they realized they were stuck and lost. They began making their way back into the cave where they found a dry, elevated spot. And there they waited.

Ake said at a press conference (via the BBC):

“We stayed near a water source. We slept at this sand spot. Before we slept, we prayed to Buddha. We thought in the morning, water would come down and officials would look for us. We weren’t scared at that time.”

Heavy Rains Prevent Rescue

You may be wondering: what was it about this cave that made it so dangerous? Readers of Time magazine clearly were asking similar questions. An article published in the midst of the team’s distress described just what made the cave so vulnerable to that kind of incident.

The Tham Luang cave system is roughly three miles long; “a system of narrow corridors winds sharply up and down, connecting larger chambers of limestone dripping with stalactites.” Located with the system is Pattaya Beach, “a vast amphitheater-like chamber,” which takes its name from an actual beach located on the coast of the Gulf of Thailand.

On the day the team traveled to the caves, they were met with heavy rain and flooding. The conditions were fierce. According to Time, Thai Navy Seals were able to respond quickly to the crisis, but the heavy rains made their efforts futile. Rescue efforts began on the night of June 24th, but divers “made little progress through opaque pools of rain, dirt, and debris.”

The rain continued to pour into the caves, leaving divers with no choice but to suspend the rescue mission. Pumps were brought to the scene, but the tunnels could not be drained fast enough. Rain just continued to come down. As Narongsak Osottanakorn, the governor of Thailand’s Chiang Rai province, put it: “We had bad luck.”

An International Search Effort

After the boys and their coach reached dry land, they began to wait. They had a flashlight and took turns moving about the area in search of a way out. They drank water as it dripped down the cave walls and tried not to think about food. According to Ake, the boys took turns digging at the cave walls, unsure whether any rescuers would be able to find them. The boys often played checkers to pass the time.

As the team tried to survive, experts from all over the world began to pitch in. According to Time, British divers and an expert with knowledge of the cave quickly arrived. And as the days went on, rescuers from the US Indo-Pacific command, Australia, China, Japan, and Israel pitched in. But the rain continued to pour and the mission was put on hold.

Then, on July 2nd, two British cave divers made contact: Richard Stanton (played in the movie by Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (played by Colin Farrell). The team was discovered roughly 440 yards away from Pattaya Beach, where divers had first expected them to have taken shelter. The divers’ discovery of the boys was captured on video.

The rescuers confirmed that all 13 members of the team were alive. The video captures the plea of one of the boys: “Eat, eat, eat, tell them we are hungry.” The divers told the boys that they could not be rescued yet — the rising water was still a threat — but they would be back, once they had a plan.

A Massively Complicated Rescue Effort

Once the boys were located, their families and the world began to rejoice. But there was one major problem: how could they ensure all 13 lives would be safely rescued? According to another report from the BBC at the time, the governor promised to continue draining the water and sending doctors and nurses to dive into the cave until the boys were saved.

On July 5th, tragedy struck. A former Thai Navy SEAL named Saman Kunan (played in the movie by Sukollawat Kanaros) made a dive to place air tanks in the cave. With an increased number of people in the cave, making sure there was enough oxygen for all was a top priority.

After successfully completing the mission, he lost consciousness due to a lack of oxygen. A friend tried several times to revive him, but the attempts were unsuccessful. Saman Kunan was lauded as a hero and received a royal-sponsored funeral.

Rescuers Save the Boys

Among the concerns of the rescue operation was making sure the boys were strong enough to make the journey out of the cave. Experts began to weigh in, advising against using scuba gear to get the boys out. One of the medical experts responsible for assessing the health of the boys and devising a rescue plan was Australian anesthetist Richard Harris (played in the movie by Joel Edgerton).

One of Harris’ suggestions became a key part of the plan: each of the boys would be given ketamine as they were assisted by a diver out of the cave. And it worked. A group of Thai SEALS stayed with the boys in the cave until the end of the mission. The rescue effort itself took three days, with each of the boys, all of whom had no diving experience, exiting the cave with a pair of divers. The incident was described as “intricate and high-stakes.” Some of the boys could not swim. But on July 10th, rescuers saved the final four boys and their coach.

The Aftermath

Thai officials knew they had a small window to save the team in the midst of a season of constant rain, and it worked. Apart from a couple of boys who may have had a lung infection, all appeared generally fine in the wake of the rescue. As Harris told National Geographic at the time, he was highly skeptical of the rescue mission:

“I expected the first two kids to drown and then we’d have to do something different. I put their odds of survival at zero.”

But years later, tragedy struck again. Petty Officer Beirut Pakbara of the Thai Royal Navy died from a blood infection he contracted during the mission. Since the minutes after the rescue, such sacrifices have not been forgotten. Just after leaving the cave, Ake told the press:

“Saman sacrificed his life to save us, so that we could go and live our lives.”

Thirteen Lives hits theaters on November 18, 2022, in the United States. For now, you can also watch the story unfold in the Oscar-shortlisted documentary The Rescue, which is now streaming on Disney+. 

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Will DiGravio is a Brooklyn-based critic, researcher, and video essayist, who has been a contributor at Film School Rejects since 2018. Follow and/or unfollow him on Twitter @willdigravio.