Review: All Thirteen

All Thirteen: The Incredible Cave Rescue of the Thai Boys’ Soccer Team, Christina Soontornvat. Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2020.

Summary: An account of the rescue of the Wild Boars boys soccer team describing the engineering and diving efforts, and how the boys endured this experience.

It was a story the whole world followed, fearing for a time that the twelve boys and their coach trapped in a flooded cave in Thailand were dead. Then we learned they were alive. But could a rescue be mounted during a break in the monsoon rains, and would the boys survive?

Christina Soontornvat was in northern Thailand at the time this all happened, and in this “you are there” account she renders the story of how all this unfolded day by day. The account is accompanied lavishly with color photographs and diagrams.

The story begins with the boys of the Wild Boars soccer team and an assistant coach, “Coach Ek,” who has built a close bond with the boys, strengthened off the field with rigorous outings. On this day they decide to go to Tham Luang Nang Non–the Cave of the Sleeping Lady. They planned to go for an hour, but decided to go further–a fateful decision because while they went deeper in the cave, the Sleeping Lady woke up as heavy rains hit. When they turned around, they found the way out flooded.

They found a dry area, and figured soon that people in their town of Mae Sai would notify the authorities and rescuers would come. And soon they did–Navy Seals, an elite group, but one who lacked both equipment and experience in cave diving. Vern Unsworth, a world renowned cave diver happened to be in Mae Sai. He was aware of the dangers, rushing, silted waters that could disorient a diver, clog gear, and potentially take lives with the slightest mistake. Eventually the call goes out to the best cave divers in the world, who come from half way around the world to be part of the rescue effort.

Another part of the story is the incredible confluence of people to help with this effort from an American Air Force Special Tactics squadron to hydraulics engineers who worked on solutions both to pump out and divert water from the caves, critically lowering the levels to reduce the flow for the divers. Perhaps most inspiring is the “Get-It-Done Crew,” an army of local people who do everything from organize food to find critical supplies–fast.

Meanwhile, as days pass on, the boys are growing hungrier. They are wet and cold but still healthy. Coach Ek’s challenge is to keep up their spirits, their hopes, their will to survive. They meditate, they dig, they huddle. Their team bonds and conditioning serve them well. When divers finally make it to them, they find them alive, though losing weight from lack of food. They can’t get them out but they can supply food, and they leave a doctor and three Navy Seals to look after their health. But the extra people are depleting the oxygen in the cave and the continued wet and cold are starting to affect the boys.

The most significant factor are the coming monsoons, which will make the caves inaccessible for six months. The boys can’t survive that long, even if their sheltering place doesn’t flood. The mountain is too thick to drill. The only choice left is to diving in and bring the boys out. Even then, they estimate three to five will die. As the title suggests, there are no casualties (other than a Navy Seal who died earlier, showing the dangers of the caves). But I will leave the story of the rescue to you.

The publication information for the book indicates it to be written at a grade 8 to 12 level. The account has an up close and personal feel, coming from interviews with all the key people. One comes away with profound respect for the boys and their coach who endured sixteen days in the caves, and the combination of Thai people and experts from around the world who overcome logistical and cultural obstacles to mount the rescue. Soontornvat not only describes the challenges, but helps us become part of the scene, feeling the alternating fears and hopes of the parents, the determination of the rescuers, and the gritty loyalty to one another of the boys and their coach. She helps us understand the culture of the Thai people and the strong values that brought them together in this effort.

This is a story one can connect with on so many levels–a story of team spirit, of cultural values, of faith (Coach Ek is closely associated with a Buddhist temple), and of courage, and on-the-edge-of-your-seat suspense. There are so many elements of a great read, which this was for me.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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